Israeli summit mixes historic symbolism with sharp disputes

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken with UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan at the summit. PHOTO: AFP

SDE BOKER, ISRAEL (NYTIMES) - For all its powerful geopolitical symbolism, the first multilateral Arab-Israeli summit on Israeli soil was a largely transactional affair.

The meeting of the top diplomats of Israel, the United States and four Arab countries at a resort hotel in the Negev Desert on Monday (March 28) was a marquee event that showcased Israel's growing legitimacy among Middle Eastern leaders who for decades had shunned the Jewish state.

The jovial candid photos of the leaders and their high-flown speeches amply testified to the event's momentousness.

But the real business of the hastily arranged summit was urgent diplomacy, spurred by the war in Ukraine and the pending nuclear agreement with Iran: The US wanted to press the other five countries to take a harder line against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, while they, in turn, wanted American assurances that Iran would be constrained.

The 18-hour summit produced no concrete public results, but there were hints of a behind-the-scenes thaw between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the US after weeks of growing tensions.

Washington has been frustrated by the Emirates' neutral response to the Russian invasion, while Emirati officials were angry at what they see as American indifference to Iranian threats to Emirati security.

The summit notably brought Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his counterpart from the UAE, Mr Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, face to face, and their evident camaraderie raised hopes of a more substantial breakthrough when Mr Blinken meets the de facto Emirati leader, Mr Mohammed bin Zayed, on Tuesday in Morocco.

Mr Blinken and Mr Abdullah displayed visible warmth to each other, two officials who attended the conference said. One photograph of a behind-the-scenes meeting appeared to show the two men sharing a joke, prompting smiles from other participants.

"Everybody got a little bit of what they wanted," said Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist. "The photo that we saw the most is Sheikh Abdullah having a nice conversation and a laugh with Blinken."

Beyond the apparent entente between the Americans and the Emiratis, the summit also allowed Israel and the four Arab countries to deepen their coordination on shared security threats, intelligence gathering, energy concerns and food supplies, according to officials who attended the summit.

It allowed the five Middle Eastern states - Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, the UAE and Israel - to collectively encourage the US to remain engaged in the region, despite its focus on Russia and China. And it gave them the chance to lobby Mr Blinken not to lift sanctions on Iran's Revolutionary Guard, a key Iranian military force, in exchange for Iran's curbing its nuclear ambitions.

"What we are doing here is making history - building a new regional architecture based on progress, technology, religious tolerance, security and intelligence cooperation," said Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who organised the conference.

"This new architecture, the shared capabilities we are building, intimidates and deters our common enemies, first and foremost Iran and its proxies," he added.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the summit was the fact that it took place at all.

The foreign ministers of (from left) Bahrain, Mr Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani; Egypt, Mr Sameh Shoukry; Israel, Mr Yair Lapid; the US, Mr Antony Blinken; Morocco, Mr Nasser Bourita; and UAE, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at the summit. PHOTO: REUTERS

When Israel signed normalisation agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020, with the help of the Trump administration, it was unclear how sustainable or meaningful the relationships would be. The fact that all three gathered for the first time on Israeli soil, nearly two years later, shows how cemented those ties have become.

The presence of Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel in 1979, also highlighted how the 2020 agreements have encouraged Cairo to breathe new life into a relationship it had long neglected.

"This is our first time" in Israel, Mr Abdullah said in his closing statement. "If we are curious sometimes, and we want to know things and learn, it's because although Israel has been part of this region for a very long time, we've not known each other. So it's time to catch up."

In that spirit, the participants confirmed that they would try to meet in a different country each year, and said they wanted to welcome more countries to the future gatherings.

But in private, the participants discussed their differences as well as their points of unity, including on Iran and the fallout from the Ukraine war.

The Emirates was frustrated by a perceived lack of US engagement after recent attacks by Iranian-backed Yemeni militants, the Houthis, on the Emirates and its ally, Saudi Arabia.

The Emiratis, like the Israelis, also fear that US-backed efforts to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear programme - negotiations are taking place in Vienna - would not do enough to limit other kinds of Iranian aggression across the Middle East.

US officials felt betrayed by the Emirati decision to abstain from a United Nations Security Council vote to condemn the Russian invasion, and frustrated that the Emirates' ignored American requests to increase its oil production to make the world less reliant on Russian fuel supplies.

The summit did confirm that to a growing number of Arab states the lack of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was no longer an obstacle to a partnership with Israel, even if such a partnership is still opposed by a majority of Arab civilians.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on March 27, 2022, before the summit. PHOTO: AFP

Mr Blinken and three of the four Arab ministers used their closing remarks to restate their countries' backing for a two-state solution to the Palestinian question. But the absence of the Palestinian leadership from the discussion highlighted how Israel's ties with the wider Arab world have become divorced from Israeli-Palestinian relations.

On a hill opposite the hotel where the summit was held, protesters tried to draw attention to the Palestinians. One group held a banner that said: "Haven't you forgotten someone?"

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