4 reasons the Negev Summit – held in the hometown of Israel’s founding prime minister – was so historic and hopeful
by Joel C. Rosenberg | March 29, 2022
Amid the nightmare in Ukraine and the worsening Iran threat, the two-day Negev Summit – held on Sunday and Monday – was a stunning success.The skeptics and cynics missed it completely. But the truth is that the summit – hosted by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and bringing together U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt – provided tangible evidence that not everything in the Middle East is clouded in darkness. There are, in fact, some truly wonderful and encouraging rays of light shining in the region.
First, the summit laid the groundwork for a Mideast NATO, a “new regional architecture” to protect moderate Arab countries and Israel from the existential threat posed by the Iranian regime. Last August, I wrote that Israel’s new government – including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Lapid – were trying to work with moderate Arab countries to begin building a Middle East version of NATO. On Monday, Lapid underscored that message, announcing that the summit would become “a permanent forum” – a series of ongoing meetings at the ministerial level – to build what he called “a new regional architecture.” This new architecture, he said, would be based on “progress, technology, religious tolerance, security and intelligence cooperation.” And Iran would be its focus. “This new architecture, the shared capabilities we are building, intimidates and deters our common enemies – first and foremost Iran and its proxies,” he said. “They certainly have something to fear.” “Israel’s meeting with top diplomats from the U.S. and four Arab countries…is one of the strongest signs yet that the country is beginning to reap the dividends of normalization deals, confirming a profound realignment of Middle Eastern powers,” reported The New York Times.
“Polls suggest that many people in the Arab world do not support normalizing ties with Israel,” the Times noted. “But to Gulf leaders, the cost is outweighed by the benefits of sending a strong message to both the U.S. and their shared enemy, Iran. For Gulf countries, ‘the optics of sending a message about a new security alliance, pushing the relationship with Israel out in the open and then sending a message to Iran, and in a way to the U.S. – that is the main priority,’ said Elham Fakhro, a Bahraini political analyst. In any case, she said, ‘They’ve found that there isn’t much of a price to pay domestically.’”
Second, the summit represented the first time that three of these Arab foreign ministers had ever set foot in Israel.
Just think about that for a moment. For most of Israel’s existence since 1948, the Arab world was either in a hot war with Israel, or a cold war. Then came Egypt’s peace breakthrough with Israel at Camp David in 1978, followed by the formal peace treaty in 1979. Then came Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel in 1994. Then the Abraham Accords in 2020. Now, finally, despite being neighbors for so long, the chief diplomats of these countries finally came – as one – to visit Israel together.
- UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan (widely known as Sheikh Abdullah, or by his initials “ABZ”) had never been to Israel before.
- Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita hadn’t either.
- Nor had Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.
- Only Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani had ever visited Israel before, and his first visit was just last year.
These Arab leaders didn’t come to the Jewish state as adversaries or strangers. They came as friends. You could see it in their body language – the warm smiles, the jokes and laughter, the deeply moving words, and the long private side conversations. My favorite moment when ABZ spoke so personally and so beautifully of how remarkable it was to be in Israel for the first time. “It’s new for, I think, for [us] to be in Israel,” he told reporters. “This is our first time. So, if we are curious sometimes, and we want to know things and learn, it’s because although Israel has been part of this region for a very long time, we have not known each other.” “It’s time to catch up, to build on a stronger relationship,” he said. “I see 300,000 Israelis visiting the UAE in the last year and a half. At the same time, I see 2 million visitors visiting the Israeli Pavilion at the Expo [in Dubai] and only the last six months. It says how curious [Arabs and Israelis are about each other], and how much we want to know each other.”