Portuguese / Spanish / English

The Negev agenda covered US withdrawal and regional security without Palestine

Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani (L), Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (2nd L), Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (3rd L), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (3rd R), Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita (2nd R) and UAE's Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (R) hold a joint press conference during the Negev Summit in Kibbutz Sde Boker, Israel on March 28, 2022 [Israeli Foreign Ministry/Anadolu Agency]
Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani (L), Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (2nd L), Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (3rd L), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (3rd R), Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita (2nd R) and UAE's Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (R) hold a joint press conference during the Negev Summit in Kibbutz Sde Boker, Israel on March 28, 2022 [Israeli Foreign Ministry/Anadolu Agency]

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met the foreign ministers of Israel, Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco and Egypt last week in an unprecedented summit in the Negev. The declared goal of the summit was to discuss regional security and economic cooperation in accordance with the Abraham Accords normalisation agreements.

However, those involved translated regional security and economic cooperation between focusing on Iran on the one hand, and addressing Russia's role in the Middle East and the repercussions of the Ukraine war on global energy prices on the other. The Palestinian issue was relegated to the third hand.

Israel, the UAE and Bahrain used their participation in the meeting to express anger at US policy towards Iran and the possible concessions to be offered to the Islamic Republic in the Vienna nuclear negotiations. Despite being less interested in Iran and its role in the Middle East, Morocco's foreign minister showed solidarity with his counterparts in criticising the decline of the US role in the region, especially the limited security guarantees provided by Washington following the Iranian-backed Houthi missile attacks in Saudi Arabia and the UAE without any American response.

OPINION: The shameful normalisers forget the legitimacy and glory of resistance

The US also excluded the Israeli point of view from the discussions; Tel Aviv is sceptical about the feasibility of any new nuclear deal with Iran. Although the Egyptians do not view pressure on Iran and curbing its hostile policies as a strategic priority, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry joined the others in complaining about the US withdrawal from the region, affirmed Egypt's neutral position on the Ukraine war, and expressed its unwillingness to threaten its extensive relations with Russia at America's request.

If Blinken had gone to the Negev in order to obtain Middle East pledges to help implement Western sanctions against Russia, including raising oil production rates in order to control the high prices that were imposed by Russia's blockade, he went away empty-handed. Instead, he was left with the insistence of Israel and the Arab countries on neutrality with regard to Russia ringing in his ears.

As for the possibility of resuming peace negotiations between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Israeli government, only Blinken and Shoukry mentioned it. The other parties preferred to ignore the whole Palestinian issue, as if confirming that normalisation between Israel and the Arabs through the Abraham Accords means the integration of Israel into a Middle East in which there is no Palestinian state.

Egypt-UAE-Israel summit: who is the boss? ... - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Egypt-UAE-Israel summit: who is the boss? … – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

With the exception of Cairo, the Arab governments participating in the Negev meeting want normalisation and cooperation with Israel without a solution to its conflict with occupied Palestine and its people. Abu Dhabi, Manama and Rabat view Israel either as a regional partner whose regional security role can be developed to help contain Iranian policies and the dangers they pose in the context of the US withdrawal, or as a country with a strong economy with which the Arabs should engage to develop economic and trade relations as well as the exchange of technology and investment. Or both at the same time.

Since the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, the UAE and Bahrain — as well as non-signatory Saudi Arabia — have been working to strengthen their strategic security cooperation with Israel in addition to their economic and trade links. As soon as talk of possible American concessions to Iran came out of Vienna — such as removing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US list of "terrorist entities", for example — Abu Dhabi and Manama quickly expressed their rejection of Washington's complacency with Tehran and joined Israel in the Negev on the basis that "Iran is our top enemy". This was expressed very clearly by Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al-Zayani and his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid when they spoke about Middle East security arrangements that would worry Iran.

Morocco, which was a later signatory of the accords, sympathised openly with Arab and Israeli anger at US complacency over Iran. Moreover, the government in Rabat is interested in bilateral economic and trade cooperation with Israel, and wants Tel Aviv's support in Washington for its policy on the Western Sahara issue.

Egypt's participation in the Negev meeting can be explained either by its diplomats' traditional fear of being excluded from security coordination between Arab governments and Israel, or by reference to the Sharm El-Sheikh meeting, held a few days before the Negev summit, between the Egyptian president, the Israeli prime minister and the UAE crown prince. They wanted to agree a unified regional position on the global repercussions of the Ukraine war and American pressure on allies in the Middle East to condemn the Russian invasion. Or, again, it could have been both.

Whatever the motives behind Shoukry's participation as the last to be invited to the Negev meeting, he was there in order to record the existence of a regional consensus on security guarantees related to the Gulf and Israel (with an explicit Egyptian refusal to form a Middle East alliance hostile to Iran), or with regard to confronting threats to food security and inflation rates due to the Ukraine war. Egypt also took part in order to register its own refusal to exclude the Palestinian cause from the normalisation efforts in the Middle East. This position matched that taken by Jordan; King Abdullah went to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah while the Negev summit was in session.

OPINION: Can Israel exist without America? The facts suggest a changing reality

What about the US? Through the participation of its Secretary of State, Washington aimed to emphasise its support for the Abraham Accords brokered by President Joe Biden's predecessor Donald Trump. However, the Biden administration also wanted to reassure its Middle East allies about the continuity of US security commitments and the marginality of the concessions offered to Iran. In return, it sought verbal promises from its allies to condemn Russia and help mitigate the rise in global energy prices by increasing Gulf oil production.

Instead, Blinken failed on both accounts, and found himself surrounded by allies who doubt the current and future role of his country in the Middle East, and reminded him of his administration's repeated talk about withdrawing from the region and turning towards Asia. They also told him of their refusal to condemn Russia, with which Israel needs to coordinate in Syria and Egypt has extensive military relations. Meanwhile, the UAE and Bahrain, as well as Saudi Arabia, are manoeuvring with Moscow to express their anger towards the US and its policies.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 4 April 2022

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

Categories
ArticleAsia & AmericasIsraelMiddle EastOpinionPalestineUS
Show Comments
Writing Palestine - Celebrating the tenth year of the Palestine Book Awards - Buy your copy of the book now
Show Comments