The sight of four Arab foreign ministers—from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt—accompanied by the U.S. Secretary of State and hosted by an Israeli foreign minister at the first annual Negev Summit at Kibbutz Sde Boker was more than just the fulfillment of founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s vision to make the desert bloom.
The summit demonstrates that the 2020 Abraham Accords pave a clear path to the end of the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict. It also represents a shift in the global balance of power and further cements Israel as an emerging superpower, not only in the region but on the world stage.
The late addition of Egypt to the summit also represents a major step forward in the relations between Israel and its immediate southern neighbor. Israel and Egypt have maintained a cold peace since signing their original historic agreement in 1979. That peace agreement, however, was nearly in tatters when longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was replaced by Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and several of its clauses were quickly violated. It wasn’t until the takeover by current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that the cold peace was restabilized.
Egypt’s addition to the summit demonstrates its willingness to join in the warm spirit of normalization and economic opportunities with Israel that the Abraham Accords have ushered in.
Yet these dramatic steps forward are potentially being accompanied by subtle diplomatic missteps. While Israel’s global position is growing by leaps and bounds, as evidenced by the summit, Israel has yet to fully comprehend and embrace its emerging superpower status.
Analyzing the accords
It is important to note that the Abraham Accords were brokered and signed by different administrations in both the United States and Israel. Both current administrations are more progressive in their foreign-policy outlooks than their immediate predecessors.
The Abraham Accords came about for several reasons. The first was the sudden and unfortunate lack of reliability by the United States to maintain stability in the region and support moderate actors.
The Obama administration reversed decades-long American policies in the Middle East, including ratcheting up diplomatic pressure on Israel; abandoning support for longtime allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt; and ignoring its own red lines, such as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. At the same time, former President Barack Obama turned America’s favor towards some of the region’s most malign actors, throwing his support behind Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, calling Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a trusted friend and emboldening Iran to the tune of $150 billion, including airlifting $1.7 billion in cash following its entry into the ill-fated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
The Iran nuclear deal gave the Islamic Republic the financial wherewithal to continue uranium enrichment and ballistic-missile development, and fund its regional hegemonic interests. As the largest state-sponsor of terror worldwide, Iran used large portions of the funds received following the signing of the JCPOA to bolster terror its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in addition to proxies Hezbollah, Hamas and Houthi rebels to destabilize nations and provinces throughout the region, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions and reign of terror pose a threat to comparatively moderate forces throughout the region. Seeing as how their most powerful ally—the United States—had enriched Iran and abandoned stable actors, a new power broker in the region is needed.
Enter the Jewish state.
Israel’s rise to power
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrated significant strength over his 12 years in office. Under his leadership, Israel blossomed into the Startup Nation and became an emerging economic engine. A surging GDP allowed Netanyahu to invest heavily in strengthening Israel’s military. With Israel’s technological prowess and superior intelligence capabilities, the military quickly became the best in the region and one of the best in the world.
Netanyahu also boldly stood up to Obama by lobbying fiercely against the Iran nuclear deal in a historic speech to a joint session of Congress in 2015. The speech angered Obama but dramatically raised Israel’s stock within the region as a nation that would fight diplomatically for its strategic interests.
Once the deal was signed, Israel proved it would stand up for those same interests militarily. That came in the form of frequent attacks on Iranian installations and weapons movements in Syria and covert operations in Iran; alleged cyber attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities; the assassination of nuclear scientists; and the confiscation and removal of Iran’s secret nuclear archives—a treasure trove of information in Iranian nuclear capabilities and secret facilities.
The Trump Doctrine
With the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration came a new formula to relations in the Middle East: strengthen and incentivize moderates, and penalize malign actors.
Former President Donald Trump pulled out of the JCPOA in May 2018 and installed harsh sanctions on Iran over its nuclear violations and terror sponsorship. He strengthened Israel by officially recognizing Jerusalem as the eternal united capital of the Jewish state and Israeli sovereignty over the strategic Golan Heights; and by reversing policies that inherently viewed suburban settlement housing as illegal.
Trump also penalized and defunded the Palestinian Authority over its lack of financial transparency, incitement to terror and a scheme of “pay-to-slay” monthly stipends to terrorists in Israeli prisons, as well as the families of those killed in the act of first-degree murder, that account for 7% of the Palestinian Authority’s total budget. Trump similarly shuttered a consulate to the P.A. in Jerusalem—now Israel’s sovereign capital—and expelled the PLO mission from Washington, D.C.
More importantly, he sought to reverse the famous four “no’s” of Obama’s then-Secretary of State John Kerry, who insisted that peace between Israel and its neighbors in the region was impossible without a negotiated solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The Trump administration found creative ways to incentivize moderate Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. And in 2020, the historic Abraham Accords were signed. Israel now had normalization agreements with four countries in the region: the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, followed by subsequent agreements with Kosovo and Serbia.
Obama 2.0; JCPOA 2.0
Shortly after the accords were signed, Trump was replaced by the administration of Joe Biden. Many members of the Biden team are holdovers from the Obama administration, members of Kerry’s State Department and negotiators of the original JCPOA.
In the past year, the new administration has managed to stall the progress of the Abraham Accords. No additional agreements have been signed since the Biden administration has taken office, despite claims by the outgoing Trump administration that several countries were prepared to do so. Part of the reason that the momentum of normalization agreement signings has stalled is that the Biden administration is no longer incentivizing nations to make peace with Israel.
Rather than providing incentives to moderates, the Biden administration is following in the Obama administration’s footsteps, pledging to remove sanctions and re-enter the Iran nuclear deal. The current administration has slapped pressure on Israel not to oppose the JCPOA 2.0 and is working to ensure Israel does not take overt actions to strike at Iranian nuclear infrastructure. Within Israel, the Biden administration has pressured Jerusalem to curb settlement-building and to make financial gestures to the P.A., which the United States has undertaken to refund as well.
Following four years of relative quiet during the short tenure of the Trump administration, Israel had been forced to respond to a barrage of more than 4,000 rockets fired from Gaza into civilian centers last May, coupled with riots in Israeli-Arab cities. Terror attacks, like the one in Hadera on the eve of the Negev Summit, have dramatically increased with experts suggesting Israel may find itself on the edge of a renewed intifada.
The administration has further destabilized the region through its hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, which turned the country and billions in U.S. weaponry over to the Taliban, and to remove Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen from its lists of Foreign Terrorist Organizations and Specially Designated Global Terrorists. Just this week, Houthi rebels have attacked civilian energy infrastructure in Saudi Arabia.
As America races forward to sign a new nuclear deal with Iran—this one even weaker than the original—the Biden administration is considering an Iranian demand to remove the IRGC from its terror lists as well.
And ironically, the United States and the European Union are negotiating together with both Russia and China to re-enter the nuclear deal. Each of the parties negotiating with Iran is struggling to assert or redefine its own superpower status; this shaking of the global order is causing immense instability around the world.
Opposition to the JCPOA
Meanwhile, the only outright opponents of the deal are Israel and the Gulf States, which are likely to be targets of further Iranian aggression. It is on the cusp of signing a new Iran nuclear deal that this Negev Summit takes place.
Although Iran was mentioned briefly in most of the foreign minister’s remarks to the press, it was certainly at the top of the summit’s agenda behind closed doors. All of the summit’s participants, with the exclusion of the United States, want the nuclear deal canceled.
Had Blinken not been among the participants, the foreign ministers of each of country would most likely have come out much stronger in their public statements against the Iran nuclear deal. That would have increased the possibility for international recognition of the aligned regional view.
Furthermore, the strongest party in the room would have been Israel. By deferring to the United States, the parties sent out a much weaker message: that opposition to the Iran nuclear deal is subservient to the foreign policy agenda of the Biden administration.
At least from the optics of the Negev Summit press briefing. Blinken has demonstrated that he can keep Israeli and Arab opposition to the deal in check, as world powers race to sign a deal. Of course, statements told to the press and messages delivered behind closed doors are usually not the same.
Allowing Blinken to control the agenda makes Lapid look like a junior partner in Israel’s own backyard.
The state of Israeli politics
The new Israeli administration is significantly weaker than its predecessors. Current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is backed by merely 6 Knesset members in a government of 120. The mandate to form the government belonged to current Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who is scheduled to rotate into the premiership in August of next year.
The coalition Lapid and Bennett formed is made of ideologically opposed parties, including an Arab party that is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The coalition has a narrow one-member majority in parliament and struggles to pass votes. Netanyahu looms just outside the coalition as head of the opposition.
Bennett has little discipline over the ministers in his cabinet. He, Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and President Isaac Herzog have advanced their own diplomatic initiatives. It’s not clear if each individual’s initiatives fit into a well-coordinated strategy.
Steering Israel towards negotiations
After years without direct Israeli contact, Gantz has held two separate meetings with P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas. Monday, on the same day as the Negev Summit took place, just 70 miles to the north, Jordan’s King Abdullah II met with Abbas in Ramallah—a not-so-subtle protest of the Negev Summit. Amazingly, Gantz is reported to have sought to make it a trilateral Ramallah meeting with Bennett reportedly (and thankfully) vetoing Gantz’s participation.
Both Gantz and Lapid have made it a diplomatic priority to steer Israel back towards the track of a negotiated two-state solution, even without the backing of Bennett and other right-wing members of the coalition. Gantz and Lapid are re-elevating possible negotiations with a corrupt P.A. led by an 86-year-old autocrat in year 17 of what was originally a four-year term. This comes despite the fact that the P.A. continues to incite its citizens to violence and has not canceled its pay-to-slay terror financing scheme.
Gantz and Lapid’s moves have been made in concert with Blinken, who seeks to reverse the direction of peace in the Middle East. While the Netanyahu and Trump administrations understood that Arab-Israeli peace could come from the outside in, the Biden administration wants pressure towards a two-state solution to be at the center of any diplomatic initiatives, in line with the previous policy of Kerry.
This is the reason that Blinken, and subsequently the four Arab foreign ministers, all referenced a two-state solution in their remarks.
It represents a diplomatic disaster for Israel—not because a two-state solution still remains the primary accepted solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict internationally, but because the Abraham Accords have nothing to do with the Palestinians and were signed despite decades of Palestinian intransigence.
A model for coexistence and enforcement
The Abraham Accords represent peace in exchange for peace; normalization for the sake of cooperation in numerous fields including security and economic opportunities. For Lapid and Blinken to turn the agreements into diplomatic levers to steer Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table when neither side is ready ultimately weakens the accords and Israel.
Rather, the Abraham Accords should serve as a model for normalization that Palestinians will ultimately have no choice but to follow. Such normalization between Israelis and Palestinians only remains possible if international actors, including the United States, will disincentivize the malign activity and corruption of the P.A., and incentivize peaceful co-existence with Israel through moderate actors who seek meaningful commercial and economic prospects.
Each of the foreign ministers also took significant time in their short addresses to condemn the terror attack that killed two Israelis and injured several others on the eve of the summit, and to stand with the victims. Many of the statements intimated that the parties will never let terrorists defeat them.
What should have been stated clearly is that the new alignment of Israel working together with Arab partners not only provides a model for normalization, but a security alliance that will root out terrorism and ensure that peace prevails through strength.
The regional alliance created by the Abraham Accords provides a model of strength and a model of opportunities. The potential they bring to the region and the world is immense—and has only just been unlocked. The optics communicated by having the foreign ministers of former enemy nations standing together speaks volumes and offers tremendous hope for the months and years ahead.
It will be up to Israel and the parties involved to build on the historic signings and this historic summit. With all the challenges facing Israel and its neighbors, including an unstable structure of once-reliable global superpowers and the growing likelihood of a rogue nuclear regime in Iran, this regional alliance is becoming more important by the day.
Alex Traiman is CEO and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.