SDE BOKER, Israel — (AP) — Israel on Monday hosted the foreign ministers of four Arab nations and the United States in a bid to strengthen its position in a rapidly shifting Middle East.
The gathering brought together the top diplomats from all but one of the Arab countries that have normalized relations with Israel in U.S.-mediated negotiations, including three that signed the so-called Abraham Accords during the Trump administration in 2020.
Meeting at a resort in the Negev Desert near the final resting place of Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, the ministers and Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged to expand cooperation to include energy, environmental and security matters and try to bring others into the agreements.
“Just a few years ago this gathering would have been impossible to imagine,” Blinken said. “The United States has and will continue to strongly support a process that is transforming the region and beyond.”
Beyond the smiles and handshakes, a series of regional threats loomed over the gathering.
As the ministers gathered late Sunday, two Islamic State group militants went on a deadly shooting rampage in central Israel, killing two young police officers. Jordan’s king, whose government declined to participate in the foreign ministers’ meeting, instead visited the Israeli-occupied West Bank in solidarity with the Palestinians.
All the ministers expressed misgivings over Iranian behavior across the region and the possible renewal of the international nuclear accord with Iran.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said the group was “making history” as he announced the gathering would become an annual event.
“Creating a new regional architecture intimidates and deters our common enemies, first and foremost Iran,” Lapid said.
Each of the Arab ministers condemned Sunday night’s deadly shooting in the city of Hadera — but they also repeatedly said it was critical to address Israel’s decades-old Palestinian conflict.
The Biden administration has urged Israel and the Palestinians to take steps to reduce tensions and create conditions for eventually renewing peace talks. But it has made clear that it has no immediate plans to press the sides to renew negotiations.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads a patchwork coalition of parties that have little in common, has said he opposes a Palestinian state and has no intention to restart peace talks. Instead, he has called for steps to improve economic conditions for the Palestinians to help reduce tensions and maintain calm.
The gathering comes as the Biden administration has been working to renew the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran. The agreement placed curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in relief in sanctions relief.
With support from Israel, the Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018, causing it to unravel.
Although Iran has since raced ahead with its nuclear program, Israel and Gulf Arab countries are deeply concerned about restoring the original deal. Israel fears it does not include enough safeguards to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Both Israel and its Gulf allies also believe that relief from economic sanctions will allow Iran to step up its military activities across the region, including support for hostile militant groups.
Bahrain’s foreign minister, Abdullatif al-Zayani, said the need to cooperate was made “more urgent” by attacks by Iranian-backed militant groups and the unresolved nuclear issue.
“We need to put into practice the principles behind the accords, mainly those of dialogue, cooperation and mutual respect,” he said. “By doing so, we will demonstrate to the whole region what can be achieved by working together”
But he said “part of this process” must include renewed efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and create an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. It was a message that was repeatedly echoed.
Blinken sought to address the concerns about Iran on Sunday, saying that the U.S. sees “eye to eye” with Israel on the goal of making sure Iran never builds a nuclear weapon.
“We are both committed, both determined that Iran will never acquire a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Underscoring regional anxieties, Israel’s government hastily arranged the meeting of top diplomats from Arab countries that have normalized relations with Israel. The two-day gathering, with Blinken, took place at the kibbutz in the Negev Desert where Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, retired and is buried.
Lapid took the Arab ministers to visit Ben-Gurion’s grave, a remarkable step given the sensitivities with the Palestinians over Israel’s establishment. Palestinians blame Ben-Gurion for their “naqba,” or catastrophe, the term they use for the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948.
Blinken on Sunday also traveled to Ramallah in the occupied West Bank to meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and stress to him the U.S. commitment to help the Palestinian people and encourage a resumption in long-stalled peace talks with Israel.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.