Negev summit: The budding Israeli-Arab alliance against Iran
In a groundbreaking summit hosted by Israel in the Negev desert in late March, top diplomats from the host country met with leaders from four Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, and Egypt.
The summit, which gained international prominence with the presence of the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, focused on regional security but two major issues have come to define the meeting: the threat of Iran and the absence of Palestine.
The summit was held to continue the normalisation of some Arab states with Israel and the Abraham Accords of 2020. Participating countries shared their regional concerns as a result of America's reduced commitment to the Middle East and the formation of new regional relationships.
The attending Arab states agreed to form working groups with Israel on counter-terrorism, energy, education, tourism, health, as well as food and water security.
"While the Abraham Accords were ostensibly developed to restrain Israel's occupation and revive the Middle East peace process, the Negev summit saw the Palestinian question fall to the bottom of the agenda"
The absence of Palestine
While the Abraham Accords were ostensibly developed in order to restrain Israel’s occupation and revive the Middle East peace process, the Negev summit saw the Palestinian question fall to the bottom of the agenda.
In fact, the issue of Palestine was not raised seriously except for the words of some participants who reaffirmed their commitment to a two-state solution and warned of escalating tensions during Ramadan. To many, the absence of Palestine at the summit was emblematic of its larger abandonment by many Arab states.
Despite the signing of the Abraham Accords Israel has continued to expand its settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, indicating that normalisation agreements cannot be a substitute for an agreement with Palestinians themselves.
For Israel, the summit was another opportunity to widen its regional acceptance without requiring Tel Aviv to engage with Palestine directly.
Arab countries participating did not mention the Amnesty International and United Nations Human Rights Council reports which concluded that Israel is guilty of apartheid against Palestinians and crimes such as torture and collective punishment.
The siege of the Gaza Strip and the economic suffering of Gazans were also not discussed, with the Palestinian cause ignored in favour of national threats.
“The Arab states which sent their foreign ministers to this meeting convened by Israel have come to view the Jewish State as an important partner in the face of perceived regional threats, namely the expansion and consolidation of Iran’s regional influence,” said Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy, in an interview with The New Arab.
“[They] do not see collaboration with Israel as needing to be linked to any resolution of the Palestinian question. The vision of the UAE, which is a regional trendsetter in terms of the normalisation issue, is to simply bury, not resolve, the Palestinian issue.”
All eyes on Iran
Many issues were raised at the summit, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine, food security and energy prices, but the most prominent item on the agenda was the Iranian threat. Israel, as the host, considered this to be the most important issue and the urgency of finding regional allies with a common enemy was likely a key aim of the summit.
“The primary reason for Israel to organise the Negev summit was the threat to its security emanating from Iran. Such threats are real as the two countries share a relationship of perpetual enmity due to Iran’s position of not recognising the state of Israel,” Asif Shuja, an Iran Expert and Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, told The New Arab.
“On the other hand, the US has been fast curtailing its security role in the Middle East and Iran’s power is fast augmenting day by day. Adding to that mix the rapid advancements in the Iranian nuclear programme and its potential agreement with the US leaves Israel no option but to work on its own to deal with the Iranian threats. The fact is that Israel cannot do it alone.”
"Although the participants in the Negev summit are all important allies for Washington in the Middle East, the Biden administration has continually pursued the JCPOA despite their opposition"
The mutual fears driving the participants of the Negev summit are based on the possibility that the Vienna negotiations will result in a new nuclear deal with Iran.
The terms of the deal may include lifting all sanctions, recognition of Iran’s regional role, releasing an estimated $100 billion in frozen Iranian assets with compensation of up to $200 billion, and significantly, the removal of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the US foreign terrorist organisation list.
These potential developments are viewed as disheartening by those at the summit, who have voiced opposition to what they perceive as American softness.
“Unlike in 2015, both the Gulf monarchies and Israel want to have their say, not just watch. However, this will only succeed if the new regional partners speak with one voice - vis-à-vis Iran but also vis-à-vis Washington,” Stefan Lukas, director of studies at the Berlin Senate Administration and guest lecturer at the German Armed Forces Command and Staff College in Hamburg, told The New Arab.
The release of Iranian sanctioned money will allow Tehran to financially support its proxies with more generosity and freedom of action. Despite severe sanctions, Iran has continued to support Hezbollah with $600 million annually and gives significant and regular contributions to other proxies in the region.
Several countries in the region have realised that the Biden administration is determined to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, and the Negev summit was an opportunity for participating countries to work together in a common consensus to moderate US action, rather than trying in vain to persuade the Biden administration to abandon the Iran deal.
“Although the participants in the Negev summit are all important allies for Washington in the Middle East, the Biden administration has continually pursued the JCPOA despite their opposition. And I don’t see that changing in the near future,” Emily Milliken, Senior Vice President and Lead Analyst at Askari Associates, LLC. said.
“However, their combined leverage could be enough to influence the Biden administration to avoid giving Iran certain concessions — like de-listing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation — that Israel and its Arab allies view as particularly dangerous.”
The main demand of Israel and allied Arab countries of the US is to support their missile defence systems and provide guarantees to counter Iran's destabilising activities in the region.
"Israel and several US regional allies have recently shown a degree of independence from the US in their foreign policy, most notably in regard to the Russia-Ukraine war"
“Israel is also hoping that the Biden administration will publicly commit to a military strike on Iran if it withdraws from negotiations or if it continues with its nuclear aspirations despite the resumption of the JCPOA — but thus far Washington has been unwilling to make such commitments,” Milliken said.
In response, Israel and several US regional allies have recently shown a degree of independence from the US in their foreign policy, most notably in regard to the Russia-Ukraine war, where several regional allies have chosen to take a middle ground rather than siding with Western powers against Russia.
“For Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the biggest challenge will be less about mediating between Tehran and regional partners than about containing Chinese influence,” Lukas said.
One solution to confronting Iran discussed at the Negev summit was to pursue a NATO-style military alliance between regional opponents of Iran. However, Tel Aviv will have difficulty in building this alliance.
“There are internal differences within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that prevent it from functioning in a manner that the Arab countries could jointly counter Iran. The differences between Israel and Arab countries are much more than the differences within the Arab countries. So, an Arab-Israel ‘mini-NATO’ is not possible unless the Arab Gulf countries themselves are first in agreement with each other,” Shuja said.
The intended aim of the Negev gathering was to discuss solutions to security threats, but this was undermined by the absence of Palestine and the reluctance of the US to confront Iran.
As the US comes closer to reaching a nuclear deal it remains to be seen how the countries at the summit will navigate changing regional dynamics.
Dr Mohammad Salami holds a PhD in International Relations. He previously worked as a fellow resident at the Cultural Research Institute and Social Mobilization Research Institute and is currently a research associate at the International Institute for Global Strategic Analysis (IIGSA).
His areas of expertise include politics, governance, security, and counterterrorism in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region.
Follow him on Twitter: @moh_salami