Top officials from the foreign ministries of Israel, the US, Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco and Egypt convened in Bahrain for the first Negev Forum Steering Committee meeting on Monday, to discuss continued cooperation between the states ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to the region next month.
The format of the six countries was launched in April at Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s initiative, when his counterparts gathered in Sde Boker and discussed how to work together on defense, energy, food security, water and more.
Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz, Bahraini Undersecretary for Political Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, US State Department Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert, and others attended the conference, which focused on “actions to bring security, growth and stability to the Middle East,” the Foreign Ministry stated. “The meeting has special importance in light of... Biden’s expected visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the American commitment to expanding the circle of peace.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz highlighted the importance of regional cooperation in remarks at a Blue and White faction meeting concurrent with the Negev Forum meeting.
“The meeting has special importance in light of…Biden’s expected visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia and the American commitment to expanding the circle of peace.”Foreign Ministry statement
“We are building our broad partnership with additional countries in the region to ensure a safe, stable and flourishing Middle East through air defense connections, among other ways,” Gantz said in the Knesset. “We will continue to strengthen this because a stable Middle East is a prime global, regional and Israeli interest.”
Gantz expressed hope that Biden’s visit “will have a positive and even a groundbreaking influence on our ability to act against Iranian aggression in the region.”
The senior officials discussed practical forms of cooperation to bring about tangible advances to the region and its residents, and plan to continue using the Negev Forum as a platform to advance solutions to joint challenges.
The Negev Forum Steering Committee had yet to release a joint statement, but the group planned to hold another minister-level meeting in October, with a Steering Committee meeting, likely in Israel, before that, said a diplomatic source.
The sides plan to form working groups in the areas of regional security, clean energy, education and tolerance, food security, and tourism, but their makeup and leadership have yet to be finalized, a diplomatic source said.
A diplomat from one of the participating countries said in advance of the meeting that they are “trying to put meat on the bone” of the Negev Forum.
Foreign Ministry Deputy Director-General Oded Joseph said ahead of the meeting that “a regional security architecture” will be a major topic of discussion, using what was a dominant phrase coming out of the Negev Summit in April, and that Iran is on the agenda.
At the same time, the US supports regional defense alliances, such as an integrated Middle East air defense system.
The top military brass of the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and Jordan secretly met in Sharm e-Sheikh in March to discuss defense against the Iranian threat, The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday.
Tovah Lazaroff and Reuters contributed to this report.