US hails progress at Negev Forum meeting amid talk of possible expansion

(L-R) Abdulrahman Al Neyadi, Yael Lempert, Israel's Alon Ushpiz, Bahrain's Sheikh Abdulla bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Morocco's Fouad Yazourh and Egypt's Mohamed Tharwat Selim (TN)

Joyce Karam

The National  /  June 29, 2022

Experts say Jordan would make a natural addition to six-country group

A senior US official has hailed the progress made at the Negev Forum Steering Committee meeting held this week in Manama, Bahrain, and expressed hope that it could lead to a “regional framework”.

Representatives from the US, Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt met on Monday in Manama to discuss the next steps for the forum after the first Negev Summit was held in March.

The aim of the Negev Forum is to forge stronger ties between Israel and the Arab states it has signed peace agreements with.

The Manama meeting “took some important steps forward towards building … what we hope will be a new regional framework, one of co-operation and integration that’s built on shared interest and addressing shared challenges”, the senior US official said in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday.

The official described the discussions as “really positive”, “very, very constructive” and in line with President Joe Biden’s coming Middle East visit.

“It fits in very much with what is going to be a focus of the president’s trip in just a few weeks [to Israel and Saudi Arabia], which is regional co-operation and integration.”

Through its six working groups — clean energy, education and coexistence, food and water security, health, regional security, and tourism — the forum is aiming to provide US advice and assistance to address recent challenges including the war in Ukraine, climate change and various security threats.

The final statement from Manama made four mentions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, stressing the need for a two-state solution and laying the groundwork for “initiatives that strengthen the Palestinian economy and improve the quality of life of Palestinians”.

“Our efforts to deepen normalization agreements and enhance regional co-operation are not a substitute for progress between Israelis and Palestinians or for progress towards a two-state solution,” the official said.

Experts saw the Manama meeting as another successful benchmark for the Abraham Accords and said the forum could expand to include countries such as Jordan or Sudan in the future.

Daniel Shapiro, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and former US ambassador to Israel, said the Negev Forum is in line with Washington’s interest in developing a coalition of like-minded partners on critical issues.

“Together [the members] tend to their own security and development needs with the US as a key partner, but not always having to lead the effort,” Mr Shapiro, who until recently served in the State Department, told The National.

He said such co-operation offers the US a “sustainable engagement and presence in the Middle East by being a partner to regional players who are leading their own initiatives”.

Mr Shapiro saw Jordan, which signed a peace deal with Israel in 1994, as a natural future member of the forum or at least a participant in future gatherings.

“I understand that the Jordanians do see themselves as a likely future participant in these meetings,” he said.

As for the Palestinians, with the absence of any traction on the peace talks as Israel heads into another election, Mr Shapiro said the Negev Forum can offer support to the Palestinian Authority.

“The one potential source of positive energy for the Israeli-Palestinian file is, in fact, the Abraham Accords,” he said. “By inviting and encouraging the participation of Palestinians in those initiatives, it contributes to regional progress.”

Mr Biden will visit Bethlehem and meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on July 14.

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, saw the Negev Forum framework as historic.

“I am old enough to remember the regional component of the original Middle East peace process, after the Oslo Accords [in 1993] when the Casablanca conference was held on economics and water and regional security, and that fell apart,” he said.

With its second meeting concluding in Manama, Mr Satloff told The National that the Negev forum offers “a more practical, hopeful and sustainable basis for regional integration that we shouldn’t take for granted”.

The expert saw US participation and chaperoning the meetings as an opportunity for Washington to “inject a positive regional identity in the Middle East”.

“It’s not just a guy sitting out in the middle of the desert blocking Iranians and killing ISIS commanders. This is a positive American advanced agenda on all these important issues,” Mr Satloff added.

He saw Jordan as a natural potential member for the forum given its interests and co-operation with the group’s members, but said that Amman has to take into account its relations with the Palestinian Authority before formally entering into such a framework.

Another forum steering committee meeting is expected to be held in Israel in a few months, followed by a ministerial gathering, the State Department said.

Joyce Karam – Senior US Correspondent, Washington, DC