Jan 11, 2023 - World

Negev Forum: Regional cooperation may lead to Israeli-Palestinian talks

Members of the Negev Forum working groups in Abu Dhabi.

Members of the Negev Forum working groups in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Courtesy of the UAE Foreign Ministry

In establishing the Negev Forum, the U.S., Israel, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Morocco agreed that regional cooperation could be used to pave the way for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, according to a document published on Tuesday.

The big picture: The “Negev Forum Regional Cooperation Framework” was adopted by the participating countries in November but kept secret until its first meeting in Abu Dhabi ended this week.

  • According to the document, one of the goals of the forum is to develop and implement initiatives that strengthen the Palestinian economy and improve the quality of life of the Palestinian people.
  • "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 document states.
  • Several Arab countries wanted the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be mentioned in the closing statement of the meeting, but it was taken out of the text after Israeli objections, according to Israeli officials.

Between the lines: The principles in the document were adopted by the previous Israeli government, which was more moderate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

  • The new Israeli government has a hardline stance on this issue.

Driving the news: The document was published after 150 diplomats and officials from the six member states of the Negev Forum convened for two days in Abu Dhabi.

  • State Department counselor Derek Chollet, who led the U.S. delegation, told reporters that it was the largest meeting between Israel and its Arab neighbors since the Madrid Conference in 1991. 
  • The meeting was the first time the working groups that were set up during the Negev Summit last year got together to discuss tangible regional projects focused on food security and water technology, clean energy, tourism, health, education, coexistence, and regional security.
  • The Palestinians were not invited to last year's summit. But 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. Palestinian officials have so far declined to participate.

What they're saying: Alon Ushpiz, the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry who headed the Israeli delegation, told Axios the Arab members want the Palestinians to benefit from the regional projects that the Negev Forum will work on.

  • "Our line is very clear and my instructions going in were very clear — the Negev forum is about strengthening regional integration and improving people’s lives and we don’t want it to engage in political discussions about the Palestinian issue," Ushpiz said.
  • Ushpiz added, however, that when people’s lives are better, it can improve the atmosphere between Israelis and Palestinians. "Maybe when the forum expands, it can turn into a pool where its water is warmer and allows people to jump in and start a wider process," he said.
  • Ushpiz said the importance of this week’s meeting was showing that the process is alive and public. “The most important part was the first five minutes when 150 people posed together for the group photo. But it was also important because we pumped fuel into the engine of this new regional mechanism," he stressed.

What’s next: Israeli and U.S. officials say a ministerial meeting of the Negev Forum is expected to take place in Morocco by the end of March.

  • "Our ministers will check our homework and ensure that we came up with tangible projects, but also set the agenda for the future," Chollett told reporters.
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