Israel has been rocked by three terrorist attacks in the past week, killing at least eleven people, while it welcomed the foreign ministers of a number of Arab nations for an unprecedented summit over the weekend.
- The foreign ministers of four Arab countries – the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt – joined US secretary of state Anthony Blinken and Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid for a summit at Sde Boker, a desert retreat in southern Israel near the grave of Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion this weekend.
- The summit, seen as a display of unity against Iran by the coalition of like-minded moderate Arab states plus Israel, would “work together to confront the common security challenges and threats, including those from Iran and its proxies”, Lapid said.
- The agenda focused on Iran and its proxies, which have escalated the intensity and sophistication of their rocket attacks in recent weeks, as well as the continuing impact of the covid-19 pandemic and the regional economic difficulties generated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
- The talks also saw some discussion of Israel’s peace process with the Palestinians, with both Egyptian and Moroccan representatives making clear their support for “the two-state solution” which they “believe is viable”.
The two-day summit was, however, overshadowed by a series of terror attacks against Israelis in the past week, thought to have killed at least eleven people.
- Last Tuesday, four Israelis were killed and two other wounded in a ramming and stabbing attack at an outdoor shopping mall in the southern city of Beersheba. The attacker, 34-year-old Arab-Israeli Mohammad Ghaleb Abu al-Qi’an, had previously served four years in prison for conspiring to join the Islamic State terror group in Syria, being released in 2019.
- A second attack, in the coastal city of Hadera, saw two police officers – Shirel Anoukrat and Yazan Falah, killed in a shooting attack, committed again by two Arab-Israeli terrorists who are believed to have been supporters of Islamic State. The attackers arrived at the scene with 1,100 bullets, three handguns and six knives.
- Most recently, on Tuesday evening, at least five people are thought to have been killed in a series of shootings in Bnei Brak, a suburb of Tel Aviv, in what is reported to have been a motorcycle drive-by shooting committed by 26-year-old Diaa Hamarsheha, a Palestinian from the West Bank.
- Both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad celebrated the attacks, with the latter calling them a “heroic response to the summit and humiliation and shame in the occupied Negev”.
- With the second attack coinciding with the conclusion of the Negev summit, in a show of solidarity, Lapid and his Arab counterparts each condemned the terrorism and emphasised “their shared determination to build a unified front against extremism”.
In reaction to the unprecedented displays of cooperation between Israel and its Arab partners, the Negev summit met with familiar criticism from Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. In a statement released on the first evening of the summit, the PA foreign ministry accused Israel of “creeping annexation”, despite the fact that the Abraham Accords process – which initiated Israel’s partnerships with most of the Arab countries at the summit – emerged out of the abandonment of proposals to annex part of the West Bank in 2020. Senior Palestinian official Bassam al-Salihi seemingly found no way that such summits would help the Palestinians, stating that, even if Palestinians had been present, “it [would] be on Israel’s terms”. Indeed, on a visit to Jordan on Tuesday, Abbas emphasised his strong ties with the Hashemite kingdom – which had declined to attend the Negev summit – claiming that “our interests, concerns, pain and hope are the same”.
The start of something new
The Negev summit, which brought together Israel with two longstanding partners – the US and Egypt – and three much newer ones – the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco – emerged out of the evolving geopolitical situation in the Middle East.
- Israel sought to frame the forum as establishing a regional front against Iran, with Hebrew-language media characterising he event as “the summit against Iran”, and with a senior Israeli official claiming that “the conference is a message to Iran that as it continues to spread chaos throughout the region, the response of those it is targeting will only become more united”.
- “What we are doing here is making history, building a new regional architecture based on progress, technology, religious tolerance, security and intelligence cooperation”, Lapid claimed.
- Moroccan foreign minister Nasser Bourita echoed this, warning “those who are enemies of this positive dynamic” that “we are here to defend our values”. Morocco has expressed alarm at the growth of terrorism in western Africa, supported by Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
- With the Biden administration represented by Blinken, the participants were able to express their concerns about growing Iranian activity in the region. In recent months, the UAE has been threatened by rocket attacks from Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, while Bahrain has long been wary of its large neighbour across the Persian Gulf.
- The Arab foreign ministers sought to emphasise the broad basis for the talks, with the Atlantic Council’s Dan Shapiro identifying the environment, maritime security, education and agriculture as other motivating factors for the summit.
- One diplomat representing an Arab participant country speculated that the most notable aspect of the summit was “simply that it took place” – a reflection of the fact that three of the four participants had no diplomatic relations with Israel as recently as 2020.
- In a sign of the shifting sands in the region, Blinken called Saudi foreign minister prince Faisal bin Farhan just hours after the summit ended, reflecting Riyadh’s clandestine relationship with Israel in the absence of formal diplomatic ties and Blinken’s record of advocacy for Israeli-Saudi normalisation.
Making an impact
Despite some cynicism, and overshadowed by terror attacks, the Negev summit did conclude with some significant milestones.
- The foreign ministers ended the conference with an announcement that they would form a permanent regional forum that would develop into a “regional security architecture” focused on opposing extremism and malign Iranian influence.
- A number of the Arab ministers emphasised their support for normalisation with Israel – long demonised by pro-Palestinian Arabs – with Emirati chief diplomat Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan noting: “Even though Israel has been in this region for a very long time, this is our first time [here]”. He characterised the period between Egypt’s recognition of Israel in 1978 and the UAE’s in 2020 as “lost years”.
- Regarding the terror attacks against Israel, which were condemned by all Arab ministers present, Moroccan foreign minister Nasser Bourita said: “I think our presence here today is the best response to such attacks”.
What happens next
While the Negev summit represented a positive milestone in cooperation between Israel and its moderate Sunni Arab allies, the series of terror attacks against Israelis this week – as well as the continued threats to all Middle Eastern countries posed by an expansionist and potentially nuclear Iran – are a reminder, were one needed, that all is not well in the Middle East.