Washington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & Security
Washington, DC 20001

On Sunday of this past weekend, the settlement of Sde Boker made history as the site of the Negev Summit, the first Arab-Israeli diplomatic conference hosted in Israel. The foreign ministers of Israel, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt and the UAE met to discuss several key issues of shared interest including curtailing Iran, deepening regional cooperation and developing stronger economic integration. US Secretary of State Tony Blinken was also in attendance, representing Washington’s interest in the budding partnership. Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid, standing next to his counterparts proudly stated that “This new architecture – the shared capabilities we are building – intimidates and deters our common enemies, first and foremost Iran and its proxies”.

While the summit was an undeniably large step in improving the coordination of these states, it also reflects the common anxiety of US-leaning Middle Eastern states that the superpower is turning away from the region, much to the benefit of Tehran. The Biden administration seems poised to continue the Obama-era pivot away from the Middle East, towards the Pacific. The Russian invasion of Ukraine further strains American international focus, forcing Washington to look to Eastern Europe once again. Ongoing talks in Vienna on rebuilding the Iran Nuclear Deal have sparked concerns that the United States is planning to make concessions to Tehran which many local partners may find distasteful in light of continued Iranian provocation. This has included fears that Washington may remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps from its list of terrorist organizations, normalizing its presence in conflict zones around the region.

Willingness to cooperate and articulate a vision for future cooperation is a major step forward for these Negev Forum members, but are mutual goals enough to overcome individual national interests and differences?

While Israeli leaders were quick to bill this event as a summit against Iran, other participating governments were more hesitant and sought resolution of other issues at the same time. The Russian invasion of Ukraine featured distinctly in the discussions had at Sde Boker. The United States has been frustrated by Israel and the Arab world’s refusal to alienate Russia over its belligerence, preferring to prioritize their own interests with Moscow. The UAE was quick to emphasize the economic integration aspect of the summit. The Egyptian delegation to the summit reinforced the importance of food security in the wake of the crisis. Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat by a sizeable margin, with its two largest suppliers by equally large margins currently engaged in open war in eastern Europe. As such, Cairo is taking great pains not to provoke Russia. While the United States wants to put forth a united front against Russia’s operation in Ukraine, many of the members of the Negev Forum have little reason to pursue an unduly critical policy on the issue. This offers another pitfall to meaningful outcomes from the summit.

The elephant in the room of this summit has been the Palestinian people, many of whom gathered to protest what is viewed by some as a betrayal of the fading Arab governmental support for their plight. While the cause of Palestinian sovereignty has remained deeply popular in the Arab world many Arab governments have quietly cut their ties and begun offering lip service rather than political support. Strategic relationships with Israel are seen as preferable and indeed more valuable, particularly among states which feel threatened by Iranian action in the region. The inability or perhaps unwillingness of some states with Palestinian sympathizing populations to extract concessions on the issue from Israel ironically cedes incredible leverage to Tehran. The Iranian foreign ministry was quick to decry the summit as a “betrayal of the cause of Palestine”. If the Arab states building bridges with Israel are unable to articulate a vision of a future which balances the interests of Palestinians and Israelis, they risk losing credibility on a hugely topical issue. On the Israeli side, lacking a reasonable solution to the status of Palestine will also hurt their ability to develop stronger relations with the Arab world and thusly their ability counter Iran’s influence in the region.

The promises made and visions elaborated at Sde Boker have been grand, and if made manifest will solidify a regional front which could challenge Iranian power projection and redefine the security order of the Middle East with the blessing of the United States. As regional partners come to terms with the withdrawal of US commitment in the Middle East, the Negev Forum offers a route to transfer security infrastructure and leadership to capable allies. The successful creation of a joint forum for communication and the development of regional aims is itself historic, but it remains to be seen how far it will go. A series of smaller cracks between members could become significant fissures if left unaddressed. At a larger level, the summit shows the new reality of the Middle East, in which US support is not a given, and unlikely allies must be found to control the fallout of Washington’s pivot away from the region. Whether the Negev Summit signals a redefinition of the regional order remains to be seen, but it is simultaneously a symbol of both optimism and anxiety in a region in which the future of US power is deeply uncertain.

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