Negev Summit shows Israel’s new legitimacy, and the common imperative to tackle Iran

The speed with which the Sunday-Monday “Negev Summit” has been pulled together, the storied location, and the expanding list of participants, combine to underline the significance of this unprecedented get-together of foreign ministers in Israel.

Being hosted by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at Sde Boker, the Negev home and burial place of Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, the gathering at so resonant a locale constitutes further dramatic symbolic confirmation of Israel’s legitimacy and regional importance by Abraham Accords partners Morocco , Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.

Their foreign ministers will, simply by their presence, be upgrading relations with the country Ben-Gurion was so central to establishing. There is even talk of a photo opportunity at Ben-Gurion’s grave.

Joined by visiting United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Israel’s new regional allies will also be gathering along with the foreign minister of the country’s first peace partner, Egypt, for formal and less formal meetings, consultations, and meals. These talks come just a week after Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi hosted Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan for a markedly warm and well-publicized summit of his own. Efforts have been ongoing to add Jordan’s foreign minister to the list – in vain, as of Saturday night.

In fact, the Negev Summit coincides with a planned visit to Ramallah by Jordan’s King Abdullah, designed to help find ways to alleviate Israeli-Palestinian tensions in the run-up to the fraught Ramadan period. Blinken, who will be holding talks with Israeli leaders and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Sunday before he heads south to Sde Boker, would doubtless have been pleased to see not only Jordan but also Abbas at the Negev Summit.

But Bennett, opposed to negotiating with the PA president, would have resisted this. Abbas’ standing among the Palestinians, already low, would hardly have been strengthened by his attending a diplomatic festival somewhat honoring Israel’s founding premier. And, in any case, the Palestinian leader is largely irrelevant to the agenda that is bringing these ministers together.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the grave of former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, in Sde Boker, on November 10, 2021. (Haim Zach / GPO)

For Israel’s boosted regional legitimacy is central not merely to the location of this summit, but to its core focus – the effort to muster an effective alliance against the common threat, Iran.

As with the Abraham Accords themselves, regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia will be absent from the Sunday-Monday proceedings but present in spirit, and potent behind-the-scenes. Jerusalem and Riyadh, though not formally allied, are working to bolster regional unity against Tehran – not rhetorically but practically, via intelligence sharing, the development of regional missile alert and defense systems, and more.

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (R), Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (C), and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meet in Sharm el-Sheikh, March 22, 2022. (Spokesman of the Egyptian Presidency)

Behind the handshakes and the smiles, it is the US secretary who may find himself something of the awkward guest at this extraordinary gathering. He will be bringing news of the progress towards a revived P5 + 1 nuclear deal with Iran, designed to rein in the ayatollahs’ rogue nuclear weapons program in return for the lifting of sanctions and, possibly, the delisting of Iran’s global-troublemaking Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist entity.

Bennett is a strident opponent of a revived deal; Lapid has said he would rather the US walk away from the talks than strike a bad deal. The other participants in the Negev Summit, and the Saudis watching from home, share a deep concern that Iran will be both empowered, emboldened, and enriched by the deal that is taking shape, and a realization that the US has all-too-many other global challenges to grapple with.

It was, of course, the US, and specifically the Trump administration, that brought the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco together with Israel in the Abraham Accords, a process that has helped modern Israel gain greater recognition than ever before in this region.

The Negev Summit signals that these new partners are now working together more closely than ever, simply because they have to – in part because they know that the US now has other preoccupations and priorities, and fear that it underestimates the dangers posed by Iran.

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