U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits David Ben-Gurion Memorial National Park with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Sde Boker, Israel, on March 28, 2022. Credit: U.S. State Department Photo by Freddie Everett.
by Israel Kasnett
(JNS) — The “Negev Summit” gathering of the foreign ministers of four Arab countries in Israel on March 27 may have been the first such high-profile visit by multiple Middle Eastern dignitaries and served as an inaugural meeting of what is expected to become a regular occasion, but there was a certain unmistakable gravity present as well.
The meeting was called to discuss one central issue: the Iranian threat. Had U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken not been present, it is likely that the conference would have focused solely on Iran, America’s withdrawal from the Middle East and furthering the success of the 2020 Abraham Accords.
However, Blinken’s presence and the U.S. State Department’s obsession with the Palestinians meant that the parties would be distracted from the main pressing issue at hand. And that the Palestinian issue would be raised as well.
Which is indeed what happened.
While hailing the Abraham Accords, in his joint press statement at the conclusion of the summit Blinken said: “We have to be clear that these regional peace agreements are not a substitute for progress between Palestinians and Israelis.”
In his press conference on March 27 with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Blinken said the United States is “working to prevent actions on all sides that could raise tensions, including settlement expansion, settler violence, incitement to violence, demolitions, payments to individuals convicted of terrorism, evictions of families from homes they’ve lived in for decades.”
His comments caused a wave of fury in Israel for focusing on what he considered Israeli faults, without any mention of Palestinian terrorism. His comments also came in a week where three separate Arab terror attacks took the lives of 10 Israelis.
“In this area, Blinken is at odds with reality on the ground,” Professor Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University and a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told JNS.
The Americans are “not going to be able to change the core foundation of the Abraham Accords,” he said. “Some of the people are simply removed from reality. And so maybe they will learn the hard way.”
The summit, which took place at the newly opened Kedma Hotel in Sde Boker within walking distance of the home of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, included Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The summit also follows on the heels of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to Egypt last week, where he met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and discussed developments in the region and the world.
‘A major achievement for Israeli diplomacy’
Gilboa told JNS that he believes “everybody got something from this conference.”
For Israel, he said, “it’s a major achievement for Israeli diplomacy.”
America’s purpose in attending was “to show involvement, to reduce criticism over the pending Iran deal and why it is the only way to restrain Iran.”
“The photo of the meeting itself is the message,” he said. “Blinken wanted to calm the Sunni Arab states and Israel, especially on the issue of the U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East.”
The Arab participants came with a message to Iran that even if the U.S. signs an agreement with it, they are not party to it and will do everything necessary to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.
When America signed the original 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, former President Barack Obama had said only former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the deal.
“And obviously, he misled the American public,” said Gilboa. “Because it was not only Netanyahu. There were the Arab Sunni countries as well.”
According to Gilboa, the Negev Summit is therefore also aimed at telling the American public that Israel is not alone in objecting to the Iran deal; that way, U.S. President Joe Biden cannot say that only Israel opposes it.
From the Israeli and Arab side, “the purpose was to show unity and to tell Blinken that America is making a huge mistake, especially on the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the list of terror organizations.”
The fact that the ministers did not produce a joint statement after the summit demonstrates that “there are some differences in opinions,” with regard to Iran, said Gilboa.
He also said he doubts the summit will influence Washington’s policy on Iran.
For this reason, Gilboa thinks the involved parties at the summit the emergence of a regional alliance and the next phase, especially if Iran approves the deal, may involve conversations with the U.S. on military compensation.
He pointed out another element to take into account: the upcoming U.S. midterm elections.
“This is another reason perhaps for [Blinken] being here and participating — to show voters at home,” he said. “There’s always a domestic background to what is happening.”
Ultimately, Gilboa said he “expects to see some improvements and changes” on the part of U.S. policy in the region. “Otherwise,” he said, “it means the United States was not listening, was not learning anything, and is repeating the mistakes of the past.”
‘Not a high water mark for American diplomacy’
But how did Blinken reconcile the purpose of the meeting, which was how to head off an emboldened Iran, with the fact that it is Washington itself appeasing and emboldening Tehran?
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS: “I don’t think Blinken ever did reconcile the original purpose of the summit with America’s role. If anything, he further clouded the picture by injecting Palestinian needs and demands into the discussion. This was not a high water mark for American diplomacy in the Middle East.”
He said that while advancing the needs and desires of the Palestinians “is not at odds with advancing the Abraham Accords,” the Biden administration “doesn’t seem to grasp that promoting regional peace can actually help buttress support” for the Palestinians.
The American obsession with appeasing Iran, placating the Palestinians, withdrawing from the Middle East — and focusing instead on Ukraine, Russia and China — ultimately cast a shadow over the Negev Desert.
“The Arab countries that are normalizing with Israel still want to help,” said Schanzer, “but they don’t wish to do so at the expense of their own needs. In the end, Blinken’s speech didn’t help promote regional peace. Nor did it help promote the Palestinian cause.”