On December 20 some news media reported that the US was planning to convene a meeting early in 2023 between Israel and those Arab nations that have normalized relations with it. An American official was reported as suggesting that the meeting has been planned as America “pushes the incoming right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu to show restraint.”
Whatever Washington’s intentions may be regarding Israel’s new administration, the plans for this meeting are quite unconnected with them. The meeting was actually announced as far as back as October, together with details of the venue and the participants.
The meeting will in fact be the first spin-off from the historic Negev Summit, held in March 2022 at Sde Boker and hosted by then-foreign minister Yair Lapid. Dubbed by one commentator “the Abraham Accords in action”, the meeting was the brain-child of Lapid, who gained the agreement of his counterparts from Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as from Egypt and also US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to meet and discuss how to exploit the opportunities inherent in the Accords.
The symbolism of four Arab foreign ministers gathering in Israel was hard to miss. As Blinken observed: “it would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.” The choice of Sde Boker, home and burial site of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was equally symbolic. At one point Lapid quoted Ben Gurion’s famous aphorism: “history isn’t written; history is made.”
Whether by coincidence or design, the Negev Summit was held 20 years to the day since the adoption of the Arab Peace Initiative by the Arab League summit of 2002. Saudi Arabia’s then Crown Prince Abdullah, later king, presented his plan for ending the Arab-Israel conflict to a dumbfounded assembly of Arab leaders, and succeeded in getting it adopted, albeit with a few amendments. The plan, ground-breaking at the time, offered Israel full normalization and peace with the Arab world, in exchange for a Palestinian state “with al-Quds as its capital”, on land captured by Israel in the Six-Day War, together with a “just settlement” for Palestinian refugees.
Over the years the Initiative, marginally modified, was readopted by subsequent Arab League summits, and was apparently set in stone as the united Arab position on the Israel-Palestinian dispute. In August 2020 the announcement of the Abraham Accords dealt it a body blow. The Accords turned on its head the basic premise of the Initiative – that Arab-Israeli normalization would be the reward for Israel’s agreement to establishing a sovereign Palestinian state. Two, then three, later four Arab nations, all of which declared themselves in support of the Palestinian cause, rejected the idea that normalizing their relations with Israel was dependent on resolving the Israel-Palestinian dispute.
Yet the two-state idea remains the holy grail for the greater part of world opinion. Most world leaders subscribe to it. Speaking at the end of the Negev Summit, Blinken repeated the US aim of a two-state solution. So did Morocco’s minister of foreign affairs, Nasser Bourita, and his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry. Lapid, too, has said more than once that he supports the two-state solution. Excluding Hamas and extremist jihadi entities, at least half of Palestinian opinion pays lip service to the concept.
Yet living alongside Israel is not the ultimate Palestinian aim. Subscribing to the two-state solution is simply a tactic in a broader strategy. The true Palestinian cause, stated openly in Article 15 of the Charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) issued in 1968 and never amended (despite assurances that it would be), is the “liberation” of the whole of Palestine and the destruction of the State of Israel. Virtually the same words appear as Article 12 of the constitution of the Fatah party.
One notable absentee from the Negev Summit was Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, who was instead accompanying King Abdullah to a meeting in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. Jordan’s boycott will not extend to the meeting being prepared for early 2023. Saladi, it was announced, will be attending the “Negev 2 Summit”, along with his counterparts from the US, Israel, Egypt, Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain. The meeting is to be hosted by Morocco and will be held in the desert city of Dakhia.
High on the agenda will doubtless be the subject that dominated the first Negev Summit and remains the major cause of common concern – the malign intentions and actions of Iran. In March a major worry for Israel, the UAE and Bahrain was the possibility of the world powers concluding a new nuclear deal with Iran. That possibility has receded. The talks came to an impasse in early September, and the US has since signaled that they are no longer a priority.
The new concern is the hi-tech weaponry, including drones, that Iran is increasingly supplying Russia for its military adventure in Ukraine. The drones are mainly used against civilian infrastructure, in parallel with the Russian missiles that destroyed large parts of Ukraine’s energy network at the onset of winter.
The first Negev Summit saw itself as much more than a defensive alliance against Iranian aggression. It agreed to initiate a program of positive action aimed at optimizing the potential inherent in the Abraham Accords. As a first step the foreign ministers decided to form six working groups, each with a specific remit. They were charged with promoting projects in the fields of security, energy, tourism, health, education, and food and water security. The Morocco-based summit will receive progress reports from these groups – the groundwork for developments with the potential to bring enormous benefits across the Middle East.