In late March, Israel hosted an unprecedented gathering of foreign ministers from Arab states in the country's southern desert. Dubbed the Negev Summit, the message to the Middle East was that Israel is now a coordinating force behind inter-Arab relations. The Egyptian foreign minister joined counterparts from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Morocco, and Israel's foreign minister met the dignitaries on the heels of hosting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. In all, envoys from six states, including Israel, were present.
This summit can be seen as building upon the Abraham Accords of 2020, the U.S.-backed peace agreement that normalized relations between Israel and the UAE, and Israel and Bahrain. Those agreements were the first new peace deals for Israel in a quarter-century. However, the Accords faced some hurdles. Rumors that another country, such as Saudi Arabia or Oman, might join proved to be short-lived. When President Trump left office there was concern that the Biden administration would not provide the same backing for new peace deals. In addition, the desire by the Biden White House to return to the Iran nuclear deal has loomed in the background for the past year.
The Negev Summit may illustrate that concerns about the Abraham Accords were misplaced. The alliances appear to remain strong, and Israel intends to build upon them with new initiatives signed with Morocco, outreach to Sudan, and warmer ties with Egypt. This is given added urgency by several intersecting processes in the Middle East. First, Iran increasingly has been using drones and missiles to threaten the U.S., Israel and their security partners in the Middle East. A rocket attack on Erbil, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, on March 12 showed that Iran believes it can target U.S. forces and friends of America throughout Iraq. Iranian-backed Houthi drone attacks from Yemen also have targeted the UAE this year.
The U.S. has provided support to the UAE to defend itself against the Houthis, and downed two Iranian drones that were targeting Israel, as the drones flew over Iraq. However, this support may not be enough to deter Iran, leaving Israel and its partners with concerns about the emerging drone and missile threat. Iran openly threatens the Arab countries, which it accuses of collaboration with "Zionists," and these threats could impact world oil supplies or trade and tourism in the Gulf. A meeting in mid-March between Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his counterparts from the UAE and Egypt included a focus on regional security and countering missile and drone threats.
With the U.S. drawing down its focus on the Middle East, Israel and its new partners realize they must work together.
A second process unfolding in the region is the perception that the U.S. may be drawing down its focus on the Middle East as it shifts to confront Russia or other adversaries such as China. As a result, Israel and its new partners realize they must work together. This could mean cooperation on air defense systems — a big win for Israel since its air defense systems are perceived as some of the best in the world. Not only the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco may want the systems, but Germany is reportedly interested in Israel's Arrow system, which defends against ballistic missiles. Israel and U.S. defense companies often partner on air defense systems; for example, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems in Israel partners with Raytheon, and Israel's IAI partners with Boeing on Arrow.
The third ramification of the Negev Summit and this era of "Abraham Accords 2.0" is less tangible than air defense deals or working together against the Iran threat. There are tectonic global shifts afoot, and Russia's invasion of Ukraine may be the start of new global chaos, in which countries such as Israel need closer regional partnerships. That is why Israel's Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid departed for a diplomatic visit to Athens on April 5, where Israel said he met with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, and then held a trilateral meeting with the Greek foreign minister and Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides.
In short, Israel is not just building an alliance of the willing with Arab states but also mapping out a new system of states that links Greece with Egypt and onward to the Gulf and India. This will be knit together with Israeli technical know-how and the shared concerns these states have about bellicose neighbors or a world in which countries such as Russia can upset the apple cart of international relations.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.