Jan 8, 2023 - World

Negev Forum to meet in Abu Dhabi amid tensions in Jerusalem

Flags are set up during Israel's Negev Summit attended by the US Secretary of State

Flags are set up during the Negev Summit in the southern Negev desert on March 28, 2022. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

Senior officials from the U.S., Israel, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and Morocco will convene in Abu Dhabi on Monday for a meeting of the Negev Forum to discuss regional integration.

The big picture: Tensions in the region are especially high after an extreme right-wing minister of the new Israeli government, which took office less than two weeks ago, visited the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, also known as the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif, drawing widespread condemnation.

Catch up quick: Last March, the Negev Summit was convened in Israel with the participation of Secretary of State Tony Blinken, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and the foreign ministers of the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt.

  • It was an unprecedented regional gathering that was put together in 72 hours. The meeting ended with an agreement to turn it into an ongoing regional framework to increase cooperation and add more countries to the process.

The Negev Forum was the most significant step launched by the Biden administration and regional governments aimed at strengthening the Abraham Accords and the normalization process between Israel and its neighbors.

  • This week's two-day conference in Abu Dhabi will be the first time the working groups that were set up as part of the process will meet to discuss tangible regional projects.
  • “It was important after the Negev summit to show that it was more than just a meeting, that it was creating an infrastructure and a process by which we can bring tangible outcomes to the people of the region in meaningful ways," a senior State Department official told Axios.
  • It was initially unclear whether the new government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would continue to participate in the process — a legacy of the previous government — but Foreign Minister Eli Cohen expressed commitment to the forum in a recent phone call with Blinken, U.S. officials say.

Driving the news: The forum's six working groups are focused on food security and water technology, clean energy, tourism, health, education and coexistence and regional security.

  • The U.S. delegation, which includes around 40 officials and diplomats, is led by the State Department Counselor Derek Chollet and other senior officials from the State Department, USAID, the Department of Defense, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and other government agencies, a senior State Department official said.
  • Israel, Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and the UAE also send high-level interagency delegations.
  • Senior State Department officials and senior Israeli officials said the goal is for the working groups to come up with tangible projects that will encourage regional integration and cooperation.
  • “We feel that the need to show the people of the region that these meetings actually mean something to them in their daily lives and that we can deliver on things that are important to the people of the region," the senior State Department official told me.

State of play: Senior Israeli officials said that recent tensions in Jerusalem around the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif didn’t hamper the preparations for the meeting this week.

  • “What's being prepared for these meetings isn't just symbolic, it's talking about ways that we're going to try to create cleaner energy for the people of the region that provides more food security, improve the access to better health care for the people of the region, ensure that that the region is better integrated in terms of its security," the senior State Department official told me.
  • "There's been other forums and or other avenues to discuss recent events, but that hasn't influenced the preparations for this."
  • U.S. and Israeli officials say the U.S. and Egypt proposed several times to the Palestinians to participate in the working groups in order to see if there are any projects that can be done to improve the Palestinian economy.
  • The issue came up directly between President Biden and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in their meeting last July. So far, Palestinian officials have said they don’t want to be part of the forum’s work.
  • “We don't see this as an alternative or substitute anyway, for progress on trying to make the lives of the Palestinian people better. In fact, we see the framework as something that we would hope would help to tangibly improve the lives of the Palestinian people," the senior State Department official said.

What they're saying: Israeli and State Department officials say they want to make the Negev Forum a sustainable process that can endure and ultimately expand over time.

  • "Our goal going in is that all six of these working groups will conclude two days of discussions with at least one but if not a handful of tangible things that then when the ministers get together, hopefully in a few months time, they'll be able to report progress in implementing."

What’s next: The U.S., Israel and other members of the forum hope more countries, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia, will join in the future.

  • “On Saudi Arabia, the administration has been very clear that normalization is a strategic aim we’re driving towards," the State Department official said.
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