March 29, 2022
It has been an extraordinary week of regional summits and high-level meetings that spell out an evolving “new Middle East,” to borrow a term from the late Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and consider how bridges might be built to connect it to the old one.
It began last Tuesday, when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi hosted Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan for a one-day meeting at Sharm El-Sheikh. The photo opportunity was the main outcome of this meeting. It indicated a new shift in regional relations following the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020.
On Friday, Jordan’s King Abdullah hosted a four-way meeting in Aqaba that included El-Sisi, Sheikh Mohammed and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. Once again, there was no official joint declaration or statement. On Sunday and Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid received the Arab foreign ministers of Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and the UAE, who were joined by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. They held a historic six-way summit in the Israeli desert town of Sde Boker that commemorated the Abraham Accords and underlined that a new regional quasi-alliance is in the making.
And on the same day that the Negev summit formally convened, King Abdullah flew to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Amman had declined an Israeli invite to join the Negev summit. King Abdullah wanted to send a message that the old conflict matters as much as the more recent ones.
To complete the series, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani was suddenly in Cairo on Monday to meet his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, who had just returned from Israel. Interestingly, Shoukry said that the Negev summit was not about new regional alliances, apparently in reference to Iran.
These summits and meetings point to a clash of axes and possible alliances that coincided with a high-level visit to the region by Blinken. The top US official traveled to Ramallah on Sunday to meet with a despondent Abbas, who talked about double standards with regard to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the two-state solution. Blinken, aside from repeating the Biden administration’s policy of backing the two-state solution, had one clear message: The need to avoid escalations during Ramadan.
While new alliances can cross over old conflicts, the elephant in the room will always be the Palestinian issue.
That was his message to the Israelis as well, although he did also mention the two-state solution. For Israeli officials, the main theme was the US closing in on a deal with Tehran. And the Negev summit appeared to show Arab and Israeli frustration with the Biden administration over its handling of the Iran file.
While the Palestinian issue was mentioned in statements by Lapid, Blinken and almost all Arab officials attending the summit, the main issue was America’s role in the region.
Blinken’s regional tour was to reassure America’s allies that, while a deal with Iran is close, it will not affect the region’s security paradigms in any way. His visit had nothing to do with Palestinian rights, the opening of a US consulate in East Jerusalem or anything else. Two things were on Blinken’s mind: Keeping America’s regional allies in line and pumping up support for the administration’s attempt to strangle the Russian economy.
It is safe to say that he failed on both counts. Most participants in the Negev summit have a different position on Russia’s war in the Ukraine than the US. While UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan was in Moscow this month, regional leaders have also stayed in touch with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
To assume that the Negev summit had achieved America’s immediate goals would be an overstatement. The reality is that the US is more concerned with finalizing a deal with Iran than with the pressing security concerns of its regional partners. This has to do with a bigger geopolitical game, in which the fate of Putin takes center stage.
Shifting regional alliances is the main story. But old conflicts still matter. On the eve of the convening of the Negev summit, two Palestinian citizens of Israel killed two Israeli policemen in a terror attack that was claimed, for the first time, by Daesh. How this development will change the existing power struggle in occupied Palestine remains to be seen. But one thing now emerges as a reality — new conflicts can never overshadow old ones.
While new alliances can cross over old conflicts, the elephant in the room will always be the Palestinian issue. It would be almost impossible to create a new geopolitical dynamic that pretends that old conflicts can just disappear.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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