Negev Summit: Israel, Arab states discuss regional defense alliance

“Iran is not an Israeli problem; the whole world cannot allow there to be a nuclear Iran," Israel's foreign minister said.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid welcomes Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry to Israel ahead of the Negev Summit (photo credit: ASSI EFRATI/GPO, BOAZ OPPENHEIM/GPO)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid welcomes Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry to Israel ahead of the Negev Summit

Israel and Abraham Accord states are discussing a defense alliance to counter Iranian aggression, sources close to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Sunday as the Negev Summit in Sde Boker began.

“Already in the first conversations, and on the background of security challenges in Europe, ideas were brought up to advance a regional security architecture that will build deterrence against threats from the air and sea,” a source said.

A defense alliance came up in Lapid’s first meetings at the historic meeting in Sde Boker, with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and his Bahraini counterpart, Abdullatif Al Zayani. Sources at the meetings characterized them as warm and friendly.

United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita also arrived at the summit on Sunday, as did US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who held meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah earlier in the day.

The historic summit took place as negotiations between world powers and Iran to return to the 2015 nuclear deal appeared to be nearing their end, and Israel and Gulf states have expressed disappointment and frustration with the direction of the talks.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a joint press conference March 27, 2022. (credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM)Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a joint press conference March 27, 2022. (credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM)

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been especially disappointed at the American response to attacks on their countries by the Yemen-based, Iran-backed Houthis, such as those that occurred over the weekend in Jeddah.

In his meetings with Lapid, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, President Isaac Herzog and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Blinken said it remains unclear whether a deal with Iran will be reached, though the US still supports one, according to a diplomatic source.

The US believes “the JCPOA is the best way to put Iran back in the box,” Blinken said at a press conference with Lapid.

However, “when it comes to the most important element, we see eye-to-eye,” he said. “We are both committed, both determined that Iran will never acquire a nuclear weapon… Our commitment to the core principle that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon is unwavering. One way or another, we will continue to cooperate closely.”

“Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is an important reminder… With a nuclear weapon, Iran could become even more aggressive and act with a false sense of immunity,” Blinken said.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is known, restricts Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Israel opposes the deal, saying that among other weaknesses, the restrictions are insufficient in light of Iran’s increased uranium enrichment in recent years, they only last until the end of 2025, and after that, Iran would get legitimacy to continue enriching uranium toward a nuclear weapon.

Negotiations between world powers and Iran have stalled in recent weeks, with outstanding differences remaining between Tehran and Washington. Iran has demanded guarantees from the US that it will not leave the deal in the future, which America cannot legally give.

Iran also demanded that the IRGC’s Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation be lifted, which the US said it would do in exchange for a commitment to de-escalate and not to attack Americans. Iran has not made that commitment yet. Israel has spoken out against delisting the IRGC in recent weeks.

According to a diplomatic source, Blinken argued in his meetings with Israeli officials that removing the IRGC’s FTO designation is mostly symbolic and that many sanctions on the organization and the people in it will remain.

Bennett referred to the Houthis’ “horrific” attacks across Saudi Arabia over the weekend in his press statement with Blinken.

“I hope the US will hear concerned voices in the region, from Israel and others, on this issue,” he said.

“The thought that [the IRGC] will be removed from the terrorist list, from the FTO, is very disturbing – and not just to us,” Bennett said at Sunday’s cabinet meeting. “We are still hoping and working toward preventing this from happening.”

Blinken called the Houthis’ attack on Saudi Arabia “acts of terrorism enabled by Iran.”

Tehran continues to engage in aggressive actions throughout the Middle East and beyond, directly and through proxies, he said. He decried the “mounting terrorist attacks by the Houthis on civilians and civilian infrastructure in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.”

“The US will continue to stand up to Iran when it threatens us or our allies and partners,” Blinken said.

“A more stable, integrated region gives us a stronger foundation for addressing shared threats as these and achieving shared opportunities,” he said.

Asked at a press conference if the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is a terrorist organization, said, “Yes… and it should be dealt with as such.”

Blinken said the IRGC “is probably the most-designated organization… in the world, including the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation.”

Lapid said the US and Israel disagree on how to address Iran’s nuclear program, but they continue to work together to stop it.

“We have disagreements about the Iran deal and its ramifications, but an open and incisive dialogue is part of the power of our friendship,” he said. “Israel and the US will continue to work together to prevent Iran from going nuclear.”

“Israel will do everything it thinks is right in order to stop the Iran nuclear program: everything,” Lapid warned.

“That is not a theoretical threat for us,” he said. “The Iranians want to destroy Israel. They won’t succeed. We won’t let them.”

Referring to the Negev Summit, Bennett said: “We are overcoming old forces of darkness to build a new future that is brighter, better and promising.”

“In a turbulent world, Israel is a force for peace, prosperity and for doing good,” he said. “There are other forces in the region that are still violent and destructive.”

Bennett tied the Negev Summit to his meeting last week with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed.

“Israel’s foreign relations are experiencing a good period” he said. “Israel is an important player on the global and regional stage. We are cultivating old ties and building new bridges.”

Lapid said countries that want peace must be able to defend it.

“Military and diplomatic strength are not an obstacle to peace; they are the only thing that ensures it,” he said.

Blinken praised the Negev Summit as something that “would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.” The US is committed to expanding cooperation through the Abraham Accords, he added.

In his meetings in the region, Blinken said, he would “affirm America’s ironclad commitment to Israel’s security.” He recounted that Biden had signed the omnibus funding bill that included $1 billion for the Iron Dome missile-defense system.

Bennett asked Blinken to convey his gratitude to Biden “for his friendship and for keeping his promise regarding the Iron Dome, which saves lives.”

“The alliance between the US and Israel is as strong as ever,” he said. “Though we may have our differences as friends do, it remains unbreakable.”

Lapid said the relationship with the US “is the closest friendship and the strongest alliance that Israel has. We share values and vital interests. We share a vision of peace through strength.”