On 27–28 March 2022 in Sde Boker, Israel hosted the foreign ministers of four Arab states – Bahrain, UAE, Egypt and Morocco, as well as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken for an unusual summit aimed at putting together a united front of countries concerned with Iran’s destabilising role in the Middle East. By all accounts the meeting appeared to be hastily prepared, and lacking proper focus. A lot of the serious fault-lines of the region emerged in the meeting too, including different perspectives on the Palestinian question and relations with Russia. But the participants did agree that they want to turn their meeting into a permanent process, and so the creation of the Negev Forum was announced. Now, it seems, the six countries have taken the first step to making this platform a regional player.
On Monday (27 June) senior officials from the foreign ministries of Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States held the inaugural meeting of the Negev Forum Steering Committee in Manama, Bahrain. The Committee’s main objective is to further coordinate collective efforts and advance a common vision for the region. In this context, they outlined a framework document for the Negev Forum, setting out the objectives of the Forum, and the working methods of its four-part structure: the Foreign Ministers’ Ministerial, the Presidency, the Steering Committee, and the Working Groups.
The Steering Committee discussed the assignment of chairs for each of the six Working Groups launched by the Ministers at the Negev Summit. The Working Groups are to meet regularly throughout the year to advance initiatives that encourage regional integration, cooperation, and development for the benefit of the peoples of the region and across a variety of spheres, including initiatives that strengthen the Palestinian economy and improve the quality of life of Palestinians. The Working Group chairs are expected to regularly report progress to the Steering Committee. Working Group chairs, with the consensus of members, may invite non-member participants to participate in specific initiatives where their participation delivers a direct benefit to the initiative’s stated goal.
Six working groups have been established, dealing with: Clean Energy; Education and Coexistence; Food and Water Security; Health; Regional Security; and Tourism. The Foreign Ministers’ Ministerial, which is expected to convene annually, is to be the principal governing body of the Forum. Israel continues to serve as Negev Forum President until the next Ministerial gathering.
The Steering Committee emphasized that deeper cooperation and improved understanding among the participating countries is fundamental to the success of the broader region.
A statement issued by the six governments later said that “this meeting demonstrates the strength of our relations, our shared commitment to cooperation, and the important opportunities unlocked by improved relations between Israel and its neighbours, showing what can be achieved by working together to overcome shared challenges. The participants also affirmed that these relations can be harnessed to create momentum in Israeli-Palestinian relations, towards a negotiated resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as part of efforts to achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.” The Palestinian question, it seems, cannot be completely ignored and remains a point of contention even among those Arab countries that have established diplomatic relations with Israel.
Across the region the issue of a new security platform – one which may do what was until recently unthinkable, namely bring together Israel and Arab countries within a common security umbrella – is widely discussed. The Negev Forum is seen by some as a precursor to such an initiative. But many key players are missing, and some think that a framework that excludes such pivotal regional countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan may serve little purpose.