SDE BOKER – Israel on Monday hosted the foreign ministers of four Arab nations and the United States in a bid to strengthen its position in a rapidly shifting Middle East.
The gathering brought together the top diplomats from Egypt and three Arab nations — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco — that signed the so-called Abraham Accords to normalize relations with Israel under the Trump administration.
But the handshakes and group photos were overshadowed by a deadly attack in central Israel, concern over the potential revival of the Iran nuclear deal and Israel's still-festering conflict with the Palestinians, who dismissed the conference.
Meeting at a resort in Israel's southern Negev Desert, the ministers and Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged to expand cooperation to include energy, environmental and security matters and try to bring others into the agreements.
“Just a few years ago this gathering would have been impossible to imagine,” Blinken said. “The United States has and will continue to strongly support a process that is transforming the region and beyond.”
As the ministers gathered late Sunday, a deadly shooting rampage claimed by the extremist group Islamic State killed two young police officers in central Israel. Participants also repeatedly expressed misgivings over Iranian military behavior across the region and the possible renewal of the international nuclear accord.
Jordan, a close U.S. ally that strongly supports Palestinian statehood, declined to attend the meeting. Instead, King Abdullah II visited the Israeli-occupied West Bank in solidarity with the Palestinians.
The high-profile visit — his first in nearly five years — and Jordan's absence from the ministers' meeting, were reminders that the Palestinian issue has not disappeared from the regional agenda.
“The region cannot enjoy security and stability without a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue,” the king said as he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who welcomed the visit. Neither leader mentioned the meeting hosted by Israel.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh tweeted that “Arab normalization meetings” that don't end Israel's military occupation of lands the Palestinians want for a state “are just an illusion, a mirage, and a free reward for Israel.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said the group was “making history” as he announced the gathering would become an annual event. He said the countries were forming a partnership based on technology, religious tolerance, security and intelligence cooperation.
“This new architecture, the shared capabilities we are building, intimidates and deters our common enemies, first and foremost Iran and its proxies,” he said. "They certainly have something to fear. What will stop them is not hesitation or being conciliatory but rather determination and strength.”
The Arab ministers condemned Sunday night's deadly shooting in the city of Hadera — but they also repeatedly said it was critical to address the century-old Mideast conflict.
“We did highlight the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, importance of maintaining the credibility and viability of the two-state solution," said Egypt's foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry. "This an important issue.”
The Biden administration has urged Israel and the Palestinians to take steps to reduce tensions and create conditions for eventually renewing peace talks. But it has made clear that it has no immediate plans to press the sides to renew negotiations. The last serious and substantive talks broke down more than a decade ago.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said he opposes a Palestinian state and has no intention of restarting peace talks. Instead, he has called for steps to improve economic conditions for the Palestinians to help reduce tensions.
The Biden administration has meanwhile been working to renew the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran. The agreement placed curbs on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in sanctions relief.
With support from Israel, the Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018, causing it to unravel.
Although Iran has since raced ahead with its nuclear program, Israel and Gulf Arab countries are deeply concerned about restoring the original deal. Israel fears it does not include enough safeguards to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Both Israel and its Gulf allies also believe that relief from economic sanctions will allow Iran to step up its support for militant groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the Palestinian territories.
Bahrain's foreign minister, Abdullatif al-Zayani, said the need to cooperate was made “more urgent” by attacks by Iranian-backed militant groups and the unresolved nuclear issue.
“We need to put into practice the principles behind the accords, mainly those of dialogue, cooperation and mutual respect,” he said. “By doing so, we will demonstrate to the whole region what can be achieved by working together.”
Blinken sought to address the concerns about Iran on Sunday, saying that the U.S. sees “eye to eye” with Israel on the goal of making sure Iran never builds a nuclear weapon.
Underscoring regional anxieties, Israel’s government hastily arranged the meeting of top diplomats from Arab countries that have normalized relations with Israel. Sudan, the fourth Arab country to normalize ties with Israel during the Trump administration, is mired in turmoil following a military coup in October and did not attend the meeting in Israel.
The two-day gathering, with Blinken, took place at the kibbutz in the Negev Desert where Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, retired and is buried.
Lapid on Monday visited Ben-Gurion's grave with Blinken. But the Arab ministers did not join them, citing scheduling issues. Such a visit would have been a remarkable step given the sensitivities with the Palestinians over Israel's establishment. Palestinians blame Ben-Gurion for their “naqba,” or catastrophe, the term they use for the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the war surrounding Israel's establishment in 1948.
Blinken on Sunday also traveled to Ramallah in the occupied West Bank to meet with Abbas and stress to him the U.S. commitment to help the Palestinian people and encourage a resumption in long-stalled peace talks with Israel.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.