Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined representatives from four Arab countries and Israel in an unusual meeting. The purpose of the Negev Summit—hosted by Israel and attended by Blinken and his counterparts from Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, and the UAE—was ostensibly to discuss regional security and economic cooperation in the spirit of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries. Instead, the summit danced around four topics that have generated considerable dissonance among the participants: Iran, Russia, energy prices, and Palestine.
Rather than using the talks to minimize their differences, the Negev participants came to the table with wildly different goals. Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, and the UAE expressed their frustration with U.S. policies toward Iran and the potential concessions to the Islamic Republic that are emerging in the nuclear deal negotiations. They also complained about the United States’ lukewarm security commitment to its partners in the Middle East and the declared intention of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to limit its engagement in the region. Egypt used the summit to state its neutrality in the Ukraine war and to make America’s top diplomat aware of the strategic significance of its ties with Russia.
Blinken, on the other hand, aimed to enlist Middle Eastern support for the U.S. position on Russia and for the vital U.S. interest in controlling global energy prices. He also downplayed the gravity of the U.S. concessions to Iran, and he brought the Palestinian issue back to the table. Only he and his Egyptian counterpart addressed the need to resume peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian authority.
The participation of the Arab foreign ministers in an Israeli-convened meeting underscores the fact that Arab collaboration with Israel is no longer tied to an Israeli-Palestinian, two-state-solution peace agreement. Arab participants in the Negev Summit have come to see Israel in several ways: as a potential ally in regional security arrangements geared toward containing existing conflicts and combating the growing influence of Iran against the backdrop of a waning U.S. regional role; as a partner in prioritizing the development of strong economic, trade, and technological ties with Israel; and a combination of both objectives.
Since the 2020 signing of the Abraham Accords, the UAE and Bahrain have demonstrated their strategic commitment to collaborate with Israel on regional security. The three countries share a vital interest in combating Iran, especially as what they see as signs of concerning concessions emerge from the nuclear deal negotiations. These include possibly taking the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps off the U.S. list of terrorist entities. At the Negev Summit, Bahraini foreign minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Alzayani articulated with glaring clarity the emerging doctrine that Iran is the common enemy. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made clear that the summit is sending a message to Iran that it should now fear the Arab and Israeli determination to combat its destructive role in the Middle East.
Morocco, another signatory of the Abraham Accords, is less concerned about Iran. It maintains its public discourse on the importance of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, but it has been intent on strengthening bilateral economic, trade, and security relations with Israel—as well as benefiting from its rapprochement with Tel Aviv to enlist U.S. support in its conflict with Algeria over the Western Sahara.
The participation of Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, the summit’s final invitee, can be interpreted as a manifestation of Egypt’s fear of missing out with regard to Arab-Israeli diplomatic initiatives. Or it could be viewed as the late outcome of policy deliberations between the leaders of Egypt, Israel, and the UAE that took place in Sinai a few days before the summit. However, the Egyptian government has been less interested in building an anti-Iran regional alliance and more inclined to push the Arab-Israeli security collaboration in directions that tackle key crises of the Middle East, including civil wars in different countries, heightened food insecurity due to the global impacts of the Ukraine war, water insecurity, climate change, and the Palestinian issue. One day after the end of the summit, in a press conference with his Qatari counterpart in Cairo, Shoukry explicitly stated that Egypt’s participation in the Negev Summit doesn’t represent its participation in a regional alliance engineered to confront other countries in the Middle East. He also stressed Egypt’s view that Arab-Israeli ties should help promote a peaceful settlement of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
The Jordanian government was apparently invited to the summit but declined to attend, citing scheduling conflicts for its foreign minister. But as the Negev Summit was underway, Jordan’s King Abdullah II met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, signaling Jordan’s frustration with the politics of sidelining Palestine in regional diplomacy. In his press conference following the summit, Blinken referred to the strategic significance of restoring peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. However, with the exception of Egypt, Israel and the Negev Summit’s Arab participants seemed more interested in pursuing their normalization of relations and in creating alternative regional security arrangements with the perceived retreat of the United States.
Blinken’s participation in the Negev Summit was also meant to reverse the trajectory of this deteriorating U.S. standing in the region. Middle Eastern countries have expressed doubts about the Biden administration’s shift in focus from the Middle East to Asia. Bilateral relations between the United States and the UAE, for example, have worsened significantly in recent months, to the extent that Abu Dhabi refrained from condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the United Nations Security Council. A similar course has been taken by Saudi Arabia, whose Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rejected U.S. and European requests to increase oil production to control the spike in prices and reportedly refused to speak with Biden in the past few weeks. In the absence of a U.S. policy change, Blinken’s words in the Negev did not quell Middle Eastern doubts.
Blinken’s efforts in the meeting also did not materialize in tangible results in other areas. Indeed, the top diplomats of Bahrain, Israel, and the UAE used the closing press conference of the meeting to make it clear that Iran remains their biggest security concern and to indirectly criticize what they perceive as the leniency of the Biden administration. Along with Egypt, these countries refused to change their policy of neutrality in the U.S.-Russia confrontation, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia U.S. calls to increase oil production.
Whether the global impacts of the Ukraine war and the Western sanctions on Russia will bring the United States closer to its Middle Eastern allies and push the Biden administration to reinvigorate its policies in the region remains uncertain. What is certain, however, is the disenchantment of Israel and the Arab countries of the Negev Summit with the United States’ role in the Middle East, especially when it comes to security. The summit’s only major takeaway was confirmation of their readiness to explore a future in which Washington is no longer the ultimate guarantor of security—and no longer the only recognized superpower in the Middle East.