Author : Kabir Taneja

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 02, 2022 Updated 15 Days ago
Despite multiple challenges cropping up in the region, Israel hopes to power through and normalise its relations with the Arab states
Negev summit plays out the highs and lows of Arab-Israeli rapprochement

Israel hosted the foreign ministers of four Arab states and the United States (US) in the barren Negev region of the country to solidify the momentum started by the Abraham Accords that were signed in 2020, and helped normalise relations between a consortium of Arab states and Israel. The normalisation process since has been operationalised at pace, while, at the same time, trying to iron out long-standing fissures that have divided Israel from its Arab neighbors for decades. Foreign ministers and their counterparts from Israel, the US, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Morocco have institutionalised the Negev Summit as an annual conclave. A one-stop summit where everything, from the Palestine issue to counterterrorism can be discussed. The venue, Negev, is representative of some of these very long-standing divisions. Hosting a summit in Jerusalem would draw ire of the Arab states and hosting it in Tel Aviv would potentially draw ire of the Israeli public and politics.

More recently, the Russian war in Ukraine and the Biden administration’s nonchalant approach to regional issues in the Gulf, and the backing of the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman on the Jamal Khashoggi murder case has wedged a wider gap between the White House and the Gulf capitals. Despite these fissures, it is the increasingly contentious issue of Iran and the subsequent return of the nuclear deal, unceremoniously exited by the US under the Trump administration, that has arrived at the forefront as the main area of contention. Israel has maintained a steadfast opposition to the deal since early negotiations began between the P5+1 group and Tehran in 2006, leading to the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, and it sees the current time frame as a rare moment in history where it can guide regional tensions away from the Israel–Arab fold to an Israel–Arab fold against Iran.

Foreign ministers and their counterparts from Israel, the US, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Morocco have institutionalised the Negev Summit as an annual conclave. A one-stop summit where everything, from the Palestine issue to counterterrorism can be discussed.

On the sidelines of the summit, terrorists struck targets in Israel, showcasing a rare display of unity amongst usually warring jihadist groups in the region ranging from the so-called Islamic State to Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and so on. Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid used the opportunity to solidify what Israel was trying to push with the Negev summit. “The terrorists’ goal is to intimidate us, to make us afraid to meet and to build relationships and the agreements between us. I am not alone in this.  Everyone here shares this sentiment.  Last night, all the foreign ministers participating in the summit condemned with one strong voice the horrific terror attack.  On behalf of the people of Israel, I thank you for this,” Lapid said.

However, a steady increase in attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE by the Houthis, a spillover of the war in Yemen between a Saudi-led Arab coalition and Iran-backed militias, has not only brought Abu Dhabi and Riyadh out of a state of relative ambivalence, but both have collectively pressured the US to mitigate its position of placing the success of return of a JCPOA agreement with Iran above and over all other regional interests. The US position in West Asia (the Middle East) has fallen wayward in the recent past. The chaotic US pullout from Afghanistan last year has placed the very idea of American security guarantees on shaky ground, demanding more transparent kinetic and strategic support to traditional allies in the region, and Gulf states exploring other avenues in Russia, China, India, Turkey amongst others to hedge their security bets. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s attendance at Negev was perhaps one of the most significant takeaways, with a thaw between Washington and the UAE now seemingly possible after months of tensions and thinly veiled barbs shared between the two allies.

Although the US, amidst the Ukraine crisis, did mobilise its navy and F-22 fighter aircraft to the UAE as show of support and strength after missile attacks on Saudi and Emirati cities and facilities, Abu Dhabi did not deem this a sufficient measure, and searched for imposed and immediate costs against both Iran and the Houthis.

The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia are demanding a reorientation away from what scholars Amos Yadlin and Assaf Orion call an American positioning of being “absent without leaving”. In short, the Gulf states and Israel want an action-led US. From Israel’s point of view, the summit plays an important part to ensure that the drift between the Arab powers and the US is not terminal, or one that drags beyond an acceptable measure of time. Although the US, amidst the Ukraine crisis, did mobilise its navy and F-22 fighter aircraft to the UAE as show of support and strength after missile attacks on Saudi and Emirati cities and facilities, Abu Dhabi did not deem this a sufficient measure, and searched for imposed and immediate costs against both Iran and the Houthis. There is also a belief that fact that the JCPOA is stuck at its final hurdles is pushing the US to be soft on Iran and allowing it to get away with attacks on Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israeli interests alike. A recent missile strike claimed by Iran in Erbil, northern Iraq, saw a relatively sober response from the US. Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said the strike was against an Israeli “strategic centre of conspiracy”. With this, also comes one of the more contentious issues, that of the demand from the Gulf of strongly sanctioning the IRGC, and Tehran’s threats of stalling negotiations if IRGC is not removed from the sanctions list. For the moment, the Gulf states seem to be gaining momentum in the White House, as US announced sanctions on individuals in Iran that it believes are involved with the country’s missile programme. However, this does not take anything away anything from the fact that the US indeed looks at the current time frame as the most opportune one to settle a deal with Iran.

The Negev summit is led by Israel’s view, and fear, that the current momentum of the Arab–Israel rapprochement achieved after signing of the Abraham Accords is both, an opportunity for a historic do-over in the region, but also fragile enough that it can be lost away in regional turmoil, as has happened many times in the past. Israel perhaps sees itself as walking away with the most to lose if the current Arab-Israeli project dissolves in the near future, as it tries to, at the very least, build symbolic cooperation amidst sharp disputes.

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Author

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...

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