A virtual summit during US President Joe Biden's visit to Israel – including Biden, Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan – represents a huge strategic shift.
It has been years in the making, as Israel and India were already strategic partners, and the Abraham Accords brought in the UAE.
The new summit, called I2U2 – India and Israel, and the UAE and the US – began as a virtual meeting. The cement and foundation that has been built around this, however, has major potential for the region, and also links up with the group members' other partnerships.
Groupings of countries matter in today's world more than ever, because countries are trying to challenge US hegemony.
Russia's leader, for instance, is also coming to the region to meet with the presidents of Turkey and Iran. That is one grouping. China and Iran have a new 25-year deal, while Turkey works closely with Malaysia and Pakistan.Israel is also part of the Negev Summit format, which has included the meeting of foreign ministers from Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, the UAE and the US. This is a grouping as well.
When we look at the overall framework of the I2U2 concept and the Negev framework – as well as Israel having recently signed agreements with Greece and Cyprus – a picture is emerging of a partnership that links the US and Israel with all of these regional powers and countries.
A broad swath of partnerships now reaches from Washington to Athens, Athens via Nicosia to Cairo and Jerusalem, and then to Abu Dhabi, Manama and New Delhi.
Each of these capitals, in turn, has its partners, whether it is the Quad of the US, India, Australia and Japan, or the Gulf ties that bring together Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and others.
These partnerships are not simple. Their members are not all democracies. They combine different types of countries and different types of people. They are not like the Five Eyes network of English-speaking countries; they are not NATO or the EU.
But they are also not the authoritarian agenda that appears to unite Russia, Turkey, Iran and China. This does not mean that these groupings, including I2U2, are opposed to any country. It is clear that India does not share Israel's concerns about Iran, for instance; and the UAE is not taking sides in Ukraine.
What matters here is deeper. According to India's External Affairs Ministry, "the I2U2 grouping was conceptualized during the meeting of the foreign ministers of the four countries held on 18 October 2021. Each country also has sherpa-level interactions regularly to discuss the possible areas of cooperation."
The countries seek joint investment in "six mutually identified areas, such as water, energy, transportation, space, health and food security," it said in a statement. "It intends to mobilize private-sector capital and expertise to help modernize the infrastructure, [initiate] low-carbon development pathways for our industries, improve public health, and promote the development of critical emerging and green technologies."
They also include discussions about other issues of mutual interest, the statement said, adding: "These projects can serve as a model for economic cooperation and offer opportunities for our businesspersons and workers."
In a statement following the important virtual summit, the White House said that the US reaffirms "our support for the Abraham Accords and other peace and normalization arrangements with Israel. We welcome the economic opportunities that flow from these historic developments, including for the advancement of economic cooperation in the Middle East and South Asia, and in particular, for the promotion of sustainable investment amongst the I2U2 partners.
"We also welcome other new groupings of countries, such as the Negev Forum for regional cooperation, which recognize the unique contributions of each partner country, including Israel's ability to serve as an innovation hub connecting new partners and hemispheres to strategically address challenges that are too great for any one country to manage alone."
IT IS clear from Washington's statement that this I2U2 gathering is all about cementing these new types of overlapping groups. There is also talk of a Middle East Air Defense alliance.
The potential for another type of grouping that involves the US, Saudi Arabia and potentially Israel and others is important, but there are already emerging lobbies against any kind of new structure.
They are linked to the pro-Iran-deal types in the US who now work at think tanks, and put out talking points against any type of relationship between Washington and Riyadh or any kind of joint work in the region. They want Iran to continue to grow its tentacles inside Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria.
Of course there are voices opposing these growing partnerships – those same voices worked for years to appease Iran and isolate Israel. They would also put out talking points against "war" or against normalization until there were two states; they would claim Iran was being provoked, or "escalated" against.
But as new groupings in the region emerge, the band of "realists" – who thought Iran having a nuclear weapon would bring "stability" to the region – have been proven wrong. They tried to keep Israel and the Gulf apart; they used to back Saudi Arabia against Israel, but when Riyadh moved close to Jerusalem, they decamped to begin backing China, Russia, Iran and whoever else was belligerent.
The region is now shifting. This shift began slowly and goes back decades. The Abraham Accords opened up new opportunities that have seen exponential growth. Defense Minister Benny Gantz has talked about huge defense trade with the Gulf, and has also talked up the idea of regional air-defense friendships.
Israel and US Central Command are doing new work together. The two allies share interests in the region and also discuss Syria. The US-led coalition downed drones targeting Israel earlier this year.
The Red Sea is now in the spotlight of US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), the US Navy element of US Central Command. Jerusalem has sold unmanned aerial vehicles and anti-drone systems to Bahrain, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The rapidly moving ties and relationships all point to an unprecedented shift both in the region and globally, as the US works to shore up friends and allies, and as friends and partners understand they have to work together more closely. They cannot just wait for Washington to decide; they have to form their own working groups and push for more summits. Washington is listening and taking part, but its regional partners are doing the heavy lifting.
That's what the US wanted as it sought to dial back its role in wars like Afghanistan and Iraq. Some said: "Stop the endless wars." Others said: "Stop the waste of blood and treasure." What the new partnerships and groupings show is that the US can focus on its own domestic issues and the economy, and rely on friends, such as I2U2, to do the heavy lifting.
Washington can work by, with and through its partners in other places in the region as well, and through that, can keep an eye on the hinges of strategic importance to maintain a global role, with regional friends at the helm.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.