When Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid brought together his counterparts from the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Egypt and Bahrain at Kibbutz Sde Boker in the middle of the Negev desert in March, he did not choose the location by chance. It was in this small town that David Ben Gurion, the father of the country who was to become the head of the first Hebrew government, lived and died when he proclaimed the independence of the State of Israel in 1948. No, it was no coincidence, but a message laden with symbolism: more than seven decades later, the majority of the Arab world had accepted the State of Israel's right to exist.
Sde Boker then hosted the inauguration of the Negev Forum, a regional platform that emerged after the signing of the historic Abraham Accords to strengthen strategic relations between Israel and its Arab partners. In reality interpreted as an alliance to contain the threat of Iran in the region, despite the refusal of its members, the Forum has served to weave new networks of cooperation at various levels within the post-normalisation group.
The first summit served to ratify the desire for cooperation among Forum members, but each brought its own demands to the negotiating table. They only agreed on identifying Tehran as a common enemy, and they conveyed to Washington their complaints about holding talks to reactivate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement with Iran signed in 2015 during the Obama Administration from which Trump, the architect of the Abraham Accords, decided to withdraw the United States.
The Bahraini capital of Manama hosted the second summit of the Negev Forum on Monday three months after the first meeting organised by Lapid. Senior officials from the Foreign Ministries of Israel, the United States, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain held a meeting that resulted in the definition of the group's formal objectives and the creation of six working groups in the areas of clean energy, education and coexistence, food security, health, regional security and tourism.
The multilateral working groups are expected to meet "on a regular basis", between two and three times a year, and each will be chaired by a member of the Forum to "promote initiatives that foster regional integration, cooperation and development for the benefit of the peoples of the region", said the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Alon Ushpiz. The diplomat stressed that "this is not a security forum, neither military nor directed against other countries (...), it is to strengthen cooperation, welfare and development in the region, and it is open to those who want to contribute".
In a joint press appearance at the end of the meeting with Bahraini Deputy Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, the Israeli Foreign Ministry director general included among the goals of the Forum "strengthening the Palestinian economy and improving the quality of life of Palestinians". However, during the first summit in the Negev, the Palestinian cause was barely mentioned. In fact, the Abraham Accords downplayed their historical claims.
The second Negev Summit is particularly important because of the regional context in which it is taking place. Israel's eight-party coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, collapsed last week after losing its parliamentary majority in the Knesset. Israel will hold its fifth election in less than four years this autumn, barring any surprises.
The hitherto leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving head of government, is still leading the polls and threatening the leadership of the centrist Yair Lapid, who will presumably hold the post of prime minister until the next elections, scheduled for the end of October, although it will be difficult for him to form a majority. Whoever is at the helm of the government, however, Jerusalem will maintain its hard line on foreign policy.
The expected regional tour of US President Joe Biden, who will visit Israel and other Middle Eastern locations such as the West Bank and Saudi Arabia in mid-July, also magnifies the importance of the second Negev Forum. The US administration is expected to toughen its defence of its allies, especially in the Persian Gulf, where it has lost weight in recent months. Moreover, it will be Lapid who will receive the White House tenant on his arrival in Jerusalem as prime minister, a Lapid who congratulated the director general of the ministry he will head until Wednesday for his role in the second meeting of the Negev Forum.