U.S., Israel and several Arab countries establish Negev Forum
Senior diplomats from the U.S., Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Morocco and Bahrain met in Manama, Bahrain, on Monday to push forward with the establishment of the Negev Forum, a new framework for cooperation in the region.
Why it matters: Regional cooperation and integration between Israel and other countries in the Middle East will be a central theme during Biden’s visit to the region in two weeks.
Flashback: Monday's meeting in Bahrain was a follow-up to the unprecedented Negev Summit, which took place in Israel last March and brought together Secretary of State Tony Blinken and the foreign ministers of Israel, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt.
State of play: The diplomats at the meeting agreed to form six working groups on clean energy; education and co-existence; food and water security; health; regional security; and tourism.
- Another meeting of the Negev Forum steering committee will take place in October to agree on its final mandate and the division of labor between the member states, Israeli officials said.
Senior Israeli officials said they hope the forum will turn the Negev Summit from a one-off to a permanent framework for cooperation in the region.
- “This is the beginning of a regional alliance," a senior Israeli official said.
- The Israeli officials said the stated goal of the meeting was to hold a ministerial meeting of the Negev Forum before the end of the year in a desert resort in one of the Arab countries that are part of it.
Behind the scenes: Israeli officials who attended the meeting said Egypt and Morocco pushed for more integration of the Palestinian Authority in the forum.
- The Palestinians were not invited to the Negev Summit in March and have been very suspicious of the initiative as a whole. They were briefed ahead of Monday's meeting and after it, according to sources briefed on the issue.
- U.S. officials said they made clear in the meeting that the work of the forum is not a substitute for progress between Israelis and Palestinians or progress toward a two-state solution.
What they're saying: The joint statement at the end of the meeting stressed that the working groups will also work on initiatives that strengthen the Palestinian economy and improve the quality of life of Palestinians.
- “The participants also affirmed that these relations can be harnessed to create momentum in Israeli-Palestinian relations, towards a negotiated resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as part of efforts to achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace," the statement said.
A senior State Department official said: “The U.S. is supporting new frameworks that aim to harness American capabilities to enable partners to work more closely together, which we think is really essential to a more secure and prosperous and stable region over the long term."
What to watch: Israeli officials said there was an agreement to try to expand the forum ahead of the next ministerial meeting and invite the Jordanian foreign minister as well.
- The more long-term goal is to add Saudi Arabia to the regional forum, an Israeli official said.