The Negev Summit from a regional perspective: What are the implications for Israel?
By Dr. Moshe Albo | April, 2022
|Photo: U.S. Department of State|
The Negev Summit in Sde Boker expresses a regional sense of urgency in the Arab world in view of the scope and severity of the threats it faces, the weakness of U.S. support, and Washington's reduced deterrence in the international arena and Middle East. The expected return to the nuclear deal between Iran and the great powers, which would transform the former into a legitimate regional power undermining the stability of Sunni regimes directly or via proxies, intensifies this sense of urgency, as well as the need to develop a regional security strategy that would regulate political and military collaborations, while anchoring U.S. commitment to the security of states in the region.
Israel therefore plays a key role in leading the operative steps designed to curb Iranian impact, in coordination with the regional collaboration on the military-security level, as it leverages its special relations with Washington to reinforce U.S. security and political support in the region. At the same time, the Negev Summit – a direct follow-up to the trilateral summit at Sharm el-Sheikh attended by the Israeli Prime Minister, Egyptian President and UAE Crown Prince – also aimed to promote joint steps by which to address the economic Tsunami washing over the region due to the global crisis, with implications on food security and regional stability.
U.S. strategy in the Middle East
As part of the national security perception, the U.S. administration has been employing a consistent policy whereby it is reducing its involvement in the Middle East, and refraining from getting dragged into yet another campaign in the region, while focusing instead on the strategic threats posed by China and Russia. Thus, Washington's interest to return to the JCPOA with Iran stems from its desire to take the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon breakout off the table. Such a scenario would destabilize the region and necessitate an American response. In this context the American administration is willing to sign a deal with Iran even at the expense of friction with its regional allies.
The U.S. government is also not responding to the attacks that had directly targeted its forces in Syria and Iraq, or to those carried out against strategic and civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have Iran's fingerprints all over them. The United States is disinclined to use force, and prefers diplomacy under almost every scenario, thus weakening its deterrence in the region, and fueling Iranian aggression. This policy, alongside a series of issues over which the United States, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and UAE on the other, are deeply disputed have heightened the tension among them, and chipped away at the trust forged between them.
At the heart of the contention are: The Biden Administration's growing criticism of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen following the naval siege and air strikes; the removal of the Houthis from the U.S. terror list, and the intention to do the same with the IRGC; the withdrawal from the F35 deal with the UAE; harsh criticism of the Gulf states' tightening relations with China and Russia; the cold shoulder given to the Saudi Crown Prince following the Khashoggi affair; and the warming strategic relations between the United States and Qatar, whose motives and maneuvers are still viewed with suspicion in the region.
The practical manifestation of the crisis in relations was the Saudi and Emirati leaders' refusal to take President Biden's calls when he sought to coordinate oil supply policies with them in view of the world crisis, and, more importantly, their unwillingness to compromise their strategic relations with Russia in order to intensify western sanctions, and mitigate the rise in energy prices worldwide.
The crisis in Ukraine has highlighted the Middle East's relevance to the United States' overall strategy and national security in several aspects: the region's geostrategic importance on the global chess board; the need to maintain freedom of navigation in central sea and shipping routes; and the growing importance of energy sources in light of the world energy and economic crisis. However, the United States' ability to divert resources and attention to the Middle East is restricted in view of the aggravating crisis in Europe, and the evolving threat in Asia vis-à-vis North Korea and China, as well as the need to address greater domestic needs following the pandemic and financial crisis.
The United States is committed to advancing the re-signing of the nuclear deal with Iran despite the price it must pay in its relations with its allies; but, at the same time, it is also trying to tone down the tension by undertaking to form an overall regional security strategy, while preserving its status as a key weapons provider. Yet, under a multipolar world order with underlying competition between the great powers, the characteristics of which, to some extent, are reminiscent of the Cold War, the United States would struggle to maintain its exclusive strategic relations with countries in the region, as the latter are already getting more intimate with China and Russia, and are not even hesitating to promote an agenda that conflicts with American interests.
Under this growing complexity, Israel has a strategic interest to preserve the United States' dominance as a source of regional support, and plays a key role in mediation and tension mitigation between countries in the region and the U.S., while anchoring Washington's commitment to an overall security strategy.
The exacerbating Iranian threat
The Gulf states are concerned that Tehran will become a regional power capable of projecting influence and destabilizing clout following the influx of unprecedented resources to the Iranian economy once the nuclear deal is signed, making Tehran a significant actor in the world energy market.
The September 2019 attack against the Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia was a watershed event that demonstrated the regional threat posed by Iran and its proxies to regional stability, and the potential of using suicide drones and cruise missiles to effectively overcome advanced defensive weapons systems. The attack reflected the overall trend of proliferating advanced firing capabilities to Iranian proxies and reactionary forces in the region in order to establish a deterrence equation, and create a level of ongoing friction just below the threshold of full-fledged war.
The last 12 months have seen escalation in the war in Yemen, alongside increased ballistic fire and drone launching at Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Iranian-backed Houthis have struck strategic targets in Abu Dhabi (January 2022), Riyadh and Jeddah (February 2022), displaying advanced firing capabilities that are constantly improving. At this stage, Saudi Arabia and the UAE called for a temporary cease fire hoping it would lead to a long term solution in Yemen.
Thus, despite the baggage and tension in U.S.-Gulf relations, Washington is still perceived as a vital source of support in view of the growing threat posed by Iran to Riyadh's and Abu Dhabi's stability. Moreover, the war in Ukraine has bolstered the Gulf States' valuableness in the international arena, and particularly in Washington, and so, despite the ongoing criticism voiced by human rights organizations and U.S. Congress of Saudi Arabia's and the UAE's general conduct (Yemen, Ukraine, human rights, Khashoggi), it seems that the realpolitik perception led by the White House will remedy their relations after all. In this context, the Negev Summit forms a significant step toward regularizing relations between these countries.
"Desperate times call for desperate measures" (Hippocrates)
The scope and intensity of the crises in both regional and international arenas have led countries in the region to take unprecedented steps with Israel by way of addressing the threats regionally and anchoring U.S. support. The need to formulate a regional security strategy to curb Iran, led by the United States, and the growing fear of a financial tsunami that will take its toll on food security in countries in the region have served as the main motivation behind the unusual gathering of Arab foreign ministers and U.S. Secretary of State in Sde Boker.
The summit also illustrated Jerusalem's key role and growing valuableness in the regional force forming, as well as the Arab states' willingness to promote joint steps with Israel publicly, despite domestic criticism.
Jordan's absence from the Arab foreign ministers' summit was noticeable. Commentators in the inter-Arab media have expressed their concern that the Hashemite Kingdom was being pushed to the sidelines in regional dynamics, and that its interests in Jerusalem as well as the Al Aqsa Mosque are at risk by the introduction of new actors, such as Morocco, Bahrain, and the UAE, into the arena. Furthermore, the fact that the summit had focused on regional security and economic issues, but did not discuss the Palestinian one is a dangerous precedent that reflects onto Jordan too. Jerusalem must ensure that Jordan play a meaningful part in the regional force forming in view of its centrality to the national security perception in a wide range of issues (borders, Palestinians, Jerusalem), while reassuring it that its status in Jerusalem will not be jeopardized.
The Arab foreign ministers and U.S. Secretary of State had emphasized the importance of the Palestinian issue, as well as the need to implement the two-state solution, while condemning the terror attack carried out during the summit. However, the summit did not focus on the Palestinian issue. The Palestinian Foreign Ministry accused Israel of holding the summit to make cynical use of the Iranian nuclear program in order to put an end to the Palestinian issue, and remove it from the international agenda. By setting the Palestinian issue aside as part of Israel's apparent strategy, the risk of initiated escalation by the Palestinians as means of reintroducing the topic to the regional and international discourse increases.
Authored by Dr. Moshe Albo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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