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Israel-Arab ties 'deter' Iran, Israel FM tells landmark meeting

Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, centre left, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shake hands with Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, on the leeft, and UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan
— Sde Boker (Israel) (AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the top diplomats of Israel and four Arab states wrapped up a landmark meeting Monday vowing to boost cooperation, which Israel said would send a strong message to its arch foe Iran.

The talks brought together for the first time on Israeli soil the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco -- which all normalised ties with the Jewish state in 2020 -- and of Egypt, a country formally at peace with Israel since 1979.

Israel's Negev Summit brings together the US Secretary of State and the foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE and Morocco at Sde Boker in the southern Negev desert on March 28, 2022

Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that "this new architecture, the shared capabilities we are building, intimidates and deters our common enemies -- first and foremost Iran and its proxies.

"They certainly have something to fear," he said about Iran, a country Israel is fighting in a regional shadow war and which it accuses of seeking a nuclear bomb, a goal the Islamic republic denies pursuing.

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan called the two-day gathering "historic" and said that "what we are trying to achieve here is changing the narrative, creating a different future".

Blinken departed Israel and arrived on Monday evening in Morocco, where he will meet senior officials from the North African kingdom, as well as the UAE's de facto leader, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

From the left, the foreign minister of Bahrain, Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Egypt's Sameh Shoukry, Israel's Yair Lapid, United States' Antony Blinken, Morocco's Nasser Bourita and UAE's Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan

The opening of the historic meeting in Israel, in the Sde Boker kibbutz in the Negev desert, was marred by a shooting attack on Sunday in northern Israel that killed two police officers and was claimed by the Islamic State group. IS has rarely managed to stage attacks inside the Jewish state.

Blinken's visit to Morocco, followed by Algeria on Wednesday, is expected to focus in part on the threat from IS and Al-Qaeda affiliates in the Sahel region, alongside wheat supply shortages stemming from the war in Ukraine.

- Iran nuclear deal -

Iran's nuclear sites

The talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal were high on the agenda at the Negev gathering and in Blinken's meetings with Israeli officials.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, on Monday struck a cautious note on the prospects for restoring the Iran pact quickly, after having signalled over the weekend that a deal could be reached "in a matter of days."

"I cannot guarantee that we will reach an agreement," he told the European parliament. "It's not getting to an end".

The efforts to revive the deal have raised concern in Israel and among US-allied Arab states, which view Iran as a menace.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives for a roundtable during the Negev summit in the Israeli kibbutz of Sde Boker on March 28, 2022

An Israeli official, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said after the Sde Boker talks: "All countries here except the US have reservations about a nuclear deal with Iran and what happened is that we got them closer to our approach."

Blinken on Sunday stressed that Israel and the US "see eye-to-eye" on the core issue of stopping Iran from ever getting a nuclear bomb, despite their differences on the JCPOA.

- 'No substitute' -

The UAE and Bahrain forged ties with Israel under the Abraham Accords, brokered by former US president Donald Trump. Morocco then re-established relations with Israel under a separate Trump-brokered agreement.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (R) receives US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ramallah

Israeli leaders have argued that the normalisations highlight a changed Middle East, where Arab leaders are no longer compelled to isolate Israel over its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

The Abraham Accords infuriated the Palestinians, who argued that they marked a betrayal of a decades-old Arab consensus.

A small group of protesters outside the Negev venue waved placards that said "Haven't you forgotten someone?"

Iran, meanwhile, has repeatedly emphasised that it remains fully behind the Palestinian cause. "Any attempt to normalise and establish relations with the terrorist Zionists and the occupiers of al-Quds (Jerusalem) is a stab in the back" for the Palestinians, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Monday.

Blinken has voiced strong support for the Abraham Accords but cautioned they cannot replace Israeli-Palestinian peace-building.

"We have to be clear that these regional peace agreements are not a substitute for progress between Palestinians and Israelis," said Blinken, who on Sunday also met Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Blinken says President Joe Biden's administration is committed to repairing Palestinian relations, which collapsed under Trump.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, jogs at Sde Boker in the southern Negev desert in the morning on March 28, 2022

But the Palestinian leader told Blinken that the West showed "double standards", taking a hard line against Russia's invasion of Ukraine while ignoring what he called Israel's "crimes" against his people.

As the diplomats were wrapped up in their Negev meeting, Abbas hosted Jordan's King Abdullah II, making his first visit to the West Bank since 2017.

Jordan -- the only Arab country with full Israeli ties that was not at the Negev meeting -- has played a middleman role between Israel and the Palestinians.

Jordan's king warned that "the region cannot enjoy security and stability without a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue", the official Palestinian news agency reported.

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