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Blinken in Israel for Landmark Summit with Arab Ministers
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meet in at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 27, 2022. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

Blinken in Israel for Landmark Summit with Arab Ministers

As Iran nuclear talks advance, the Gulf states and Israel unite against ‘existential threat’ from Tehran

Returning to the landmark nuclear agreement is “the best way to put Iran’s program back in the box that it was in but has escaped” after the US withdrew from the accord under President Donald Trump in 2018, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters during a press conference with his Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Israel furiously opposed the original deal, which promised its nemesis Iran sanctions relief in return for limits on its nuclear program, and argues that restoring the agreement will not hinder Tehran’s ambitions.

Lapid told reporters that Israel has “disagreements” with the US about the Iranian nuclear issue, which it was discussing with its key ally in “open and honest dialogue.

“Israel will do anything we believe is needed to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Anything,” he said. “From our point of view, the Iranian threat is not theoretical. The Iranians want to destroy Israel. They will not succeed. We will not let them.”

Despite long-standing differences with Israel over the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Blinken emphasized that the two countries are on the same page.

“When it comes to the most important element, we see eye-to-eye,” the secretary said. “We are both committed, both determined, that Iran will never acquire a nuclear weapon.”

The top US diplomat also met with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Blinken and Lapid will both attend a summit on Sunday and Monday in Israel’s Negev desert with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco.

Israel describes the summit as historic and a major political “accomplishment” for its foreign policy.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a Middle East analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told The Media Line that it is historic in the sense that it’s the first time such a meeting takes place in Israel.

“We have met in the past on a dual basis, bilateral basis, but it’s the first time here. This is a major change. What used to happen behind closed doors in the past, now it’s taking place in the limelight,” says Neriah, a former foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and deputy head of assessment for Israeli Military Intelligence.

The gathering at Kibbutz Sde Boker reflects the changing geopolitical scene in the region, he says.

“We are witnessing tectonic moves right now: the war in Ukraine, the possible signing of the Iran nuclear deal, Syria, Lebanon, Hamas. Each country has an interest of its own to discuss.”

Neriah says there are several issues to be discussed at the summit, among them the Iran nuclear deal, which according to Iranian, European, and US officials is close to finalization, the war in Ukraine, the issue of energy supply, and how the nations in attendance can cooperate. He says signing an agreement with Tehran and global powers will see most sanctions lifted on the Islamic Republic, which will unlock billions of dollars that will find its way to Iranian allies in the region.

“If you talk about Egypt then it’s Sinai, and Libya. If we talk about Morocco, we are talking about Iranian involvement in Algeria to destabilize Morocco. If we talk about the Emirates and the Gulf states, they worry about Iranian direct intervention with the Houthis. The area is full of subjects that have to be coordinated between the parties. What unites them is the common thread, the main issue, which today is Iran.”

While Israeli officials are touting this meeting as a major accomplishment, two important parties will not attend. Instead, they will hold their own meeting a few miles to the north, in Ramallah, the West Bank.

“The contacts with the king [Abdullah II] have been very steady lately. He has met all top Israeli officials in Amman including the prime minister and foreign minister, so there’s nothing unusual about Jordan not attending, says Neriah.

Shimon Peres’ prophecy of 30 years ago may be becoming a reality.

Peres imagined the “new Middle East” where relations between Israel and the countries of the region are based on mutual interests. He saw these ties as separate and not affected by the Palestinian conflict.

Last Monday and Tuesday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hosted Bennett and the UAE’s de facto ruler, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, for unprecedented three-way talks, in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

And on Friday, King Abdullah of Jordan held a gathering of his own with el-Sisi, Crown Prince Mohamed, and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in the Red Sea port city of Aqaba.

The UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco established full diplomatic ties with Israel in Trump-brokered agreements, while Egypt was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel in 1979.

Later on Sunday, Blinken traveled to Ramallah for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

King Abdullah plans to travel to Ramallah for a meeting with Abbas on Monday. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi declined an invitation to join the summit in southern Israel, opting instead to accompany the monarch.

A PA official told The Media Line last week that Abbas will take the opportunity to discuss with Abdullah “new efforts to revive” the PA’s lines of communication with the US and Israel.

The PA leadership in Ramallah is furious over what it perceives to be a total US abandonment of promises Washington made to the Palestinians.

The Negev summit is attracting major attention, with no sign that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be on the agenda.

Ahmad Rafiq Awad, president of the Center for Jerusalem Studies at Al-Quds University, told The Media Line that “Israel has now become the cornerstone of the region, and the matter has gone beyond the issue of normalization to building regional alliances. What we are seeing now is perhaps a prelude to an Arab-Israeli security alliance.”

But marginalizing the PA will not serve anyone and could backfire on those who try to isolate the Palestinians, he explains.

“The elephant in the room isn’t going anywhere, and unless the Israeli government engages with the Palestinian Authority, there’s nothing to be happy about,” says Rafiq Awad.

Israel and the Palestinians have not participated in direct negotiations since April 2014, despite a recent flurry of meetings between Abbas or his top aide with Israeli officials.

Rafiq Awad says developments like the Negev summit are disastrous to the Palestinian cause.

“It is a catastrophic reality for the Palestinians. It became clear that the Arabs are normalizing and allying themselves with Israel without insisting on the Palestinians’ rights, as there is still occupation and settlements.”

As for the Jordanian foreign minister skipping the gathering, Rafiq Awad said Amman has its eyes on domestic opinion and is being “careful because his participation would create internal anger, which he needs to avoid.

“King Abdullah doesn’t feel there’s a need to send his foreign minister to this meeting. He has been meeting with Israeli officials in Amman and he hosted a meeting that involved el-Sisi, MbZ, and Iraqi Foreign Minister al-Kadhimi in Aqaba,” Rafiq Awad says.

In an irony of history, Iran had strong ties with Israel before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the shah. Now Israel is aligning itself with Sunni Arab governments to create a united front against Iran.

The Gulf states and Israel are disappointed by Washington’s handling of the Iranian nuclear file, as they consider Tehran an “existential threat.” There is also Emirati-Saudi dissatisfaction with the lack of strong and public US support for their war against the Houthi in Yemen.

“There’s a feeling among Gulf states that the US is pulling out of the region, leaving them vulnerable, exposed to Iranian hegemony. Therefore, they feel that they need to find ways to protect themselves,” says Rafiq Awad.

But “Arab governments are delusional if they think Israel will defend them against Iran,” he says.

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