Israel, Arab states meet in Negev desert, pledge greater cooperation

Secretary of State Antony Blinken hailed the meeting as the latest indication of a realignment of Middle Eastern relations that could expand the potential for peace and conflict resolution across the region. “Just a few years ago this gathering would be impossible to imagine,” Blinken said.

Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, said the countries would strive to make the summit a yearly event.

The six-way meeting in Israel’s southern desert, dubbed the “Negev Summit,” represents the type of rapprochement the United States has long sought. But it also came amid a growing list of tensions between Washington and its Middle East allies, including the revival of the Iran nuclear deal, mounting tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and a lackluster response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from Arab and Israeli partners.

Arab governments in attendance thanked Israel for hosting but also maintained that it must make progress on implementing a two-state solution for the Palestinians with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“Our message should be that we’re here to defend our values, to defend our interests,” said Morocco’s foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, who said the creation of a future Palestinian state was still “possible.”

“We are here to be a force of peace,” he said, a message echoed by Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry.

Israeli officials have hoped that external events would not distract from the meeting, including the killing of two Israeli border police and their armed assailants on Sunday 30 miles outside of Tel Aviv, heightening concerns about a return to fighting between Israelis and Palestinians.

Hamas praised the attack and linked it to the desert meeting of Arab countries. Israeli security officials described the assailants as Palestinian citizens of Israel and Islamic State sympathizers.

Lapid said acts of terror won’t intimidate Israel or obstruct the progress of the meeting. “They will not succeed. We will not let them,” Lapid said.

Bourita, agreed, saying “our presence today is the best response to such attacks.”

A parallel meeting on Monday was scheduled between Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has criticized the summit as a “harsh attack on Palestinians.” Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have long opposed the normalization agreements between Arab states and Israel as a means of relegating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the back burner.

The Trump administration, which brokered the Arab-Israeli normalization agreements in 2020, largely ignored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something Blinken said he would not do.

“We have to be clear that these regional peace agreements are not a substitute for progress between Palestinians and Israelis,” he said.

The Biden administration, while supporting the normalization agreements, has sought to improve the situation for Palestinians, a point Blinken underscored during his meeting with Abbas on Sunday.

Blinken voiced support for a two-state solution and spoke out against Israeli settlement construction on disputed territory while also criticizing Palestinians for payments to the families of terrorists.

“The United States is committed to rebuilding our relationship with the Palestinian Authority and with the Palestinian people,” Blinken told Abbas, while pledging to continue to provide financial aid for development and $500 million in humanitarian assistance.

Abbas accused the West of a “double standard” in penalizing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine while letting Israel’s aggression against Palestinians go unpunished.

“Despite the crimes of the Israeli occupation that amounted to ethnic cleansing and racial discrimination … we find no one who is holding Israel responsible for behaving as a state above the law,” he said.

Besides overcoming political differences, the gathering also had to contend with some logistical issues.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tested positive for the coronavirus, results that came in hours after his meeting with Blinken at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem.

The State Department determined that Blinken was a “close contact” with Bennett but he continued with his Negev meetings, opting to keep his mask on during meetings with counterparts.

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