Foreign ministers from across the Middle East have met for a summit in the Negev desert, the first such meeting to take place on Israeli soil, as they try to co-ordinate their response to regional security threats including Iran.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken is also attending the summit, alongside Israel’s Yair Lapid, the UAE’s Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Sameh Shoukry of Egypt, Nasser Bourita from Morocco and Bahrain’s Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani — all countries that have established diplomatic ties with Israel.
Lapid on Monday said that the purpose of the Negev summit was to build a “new regional architecture” whose shared capabilities “intimidates and deters our common enemies — first and foremost Iran and its proxies”.
Israeli officials oppose the possible revival of a nuclear agreement with Iran. The US Biden administration has been holding indirect talks in Vienna, mediated by the EU, with Iran for 12 months in the hope of securing an agreement that would lead to Iran drastically reducing its nuclear activity. In return, the US would rejoin the accord and lift many sanctions on the Islamic republic. Gulf states such as the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia also worry that any revival of the nuclear deal will embolden Iran and its proxies.
“The momentum for this emerging regional bloc is due to the progress of the Vienna talks, which has fuelled common concerns over the prospect of an increasingly confident and wealthy Iran, free of sanctions, increasingly activating its offensive capabilities,” said Yaakov Lappin, a defence analyst. “Blinken’s presence provides an opportunity for this bloc to share concerns and co-ordinate responses with the US to these future scenarios.”
On Sunday, a senior US official warned that a deal to save the nuclear accord with Iran was neither imminent nor inevitable as diplomatic efforts stalled over Tehran’s demand that Washington removes a terrorist designation on the elite Revolutionary Guards.
The Negev summit was hastily arranged late last week after Blinken’s visit to Israel was already confirmed. The UAE, Bahrain and Morocco normalised relations with Israel in 2020; Egypt struck a peace deal with Israel in 1979.
Over the weekend, two Israeli police officers were killed by gun-wielding assailants in the northern city of Hadera. Four Israeli civilians were killed last Tuesday in the city of Be’er Sheva in a combined car-ramming and knife attack. Officials have attributed both events to Palestinian citizens of Israel with known ties to Isis.
The Israeli military announced an increase in its troop presence in the West Bank, while the country’s police and public have shifted to a heightened state of alert.
Israel has been warning for several weeks of the risk of violence escalating during April, with the Muslim holiday of Ramadan and the Jewish festival of Passover taking place at the same time. Ramadan, set to begin this weekend, has historically been a time of heightened religious tensions, especially in Jerusalem and its holy sites.