A summit in Israel, at a decisive moment, highlighted the tensions that have rendered the nation an outlier among democratic states.
On Monday, the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, joined the foreign ministers of Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and Morocco for a meeting at Sde Boker, the retirement kibbutz and burial place of David Ben-Gurion, the nation’s first Prime Minister. The meeting had been initiated by the Israeli Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, with encouragement from Blinken, whose main aim was to reassure the group that the United States is fixed in its commitment to deny Iran a nuclear weapon, and that the not-yet-consummated Iran nuclear deal is the best of available options to do that. “The summit was to showcase a strategic alliance growing out of the Abraham Accords,” the Israeli journalist Henrique Cymerman told me. “To seed the formation of a kind of Middle Eastern nato to contain Iran—deal or no deal.”
Israel and its Arab guests registered a certain discontent. No deal currently being negotiated contemplates constraints on the Iranian missile and drone programs. The leaders of the Gulf states have been increasingly chagrined by the lack of a U.S. response to the various attacks that Iran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen have made on the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia during the past few months—including, most recently, a strike on a Saudi Aramco facility, on March 25th. Indeed, Saudi Arabia and Jordan were not represented in person at the summit, although their interests were. (“The Saudis were the real enablers of the meeting,” Cymerman said.) According to Axios, Blinken asked Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, at a pre-summit meeting on Sunday, what alternative Israel proposed to a new deal—other than a U.S.-led, preëmptive strike, which Israel continues to prepare for but, particularly given the situation in Ukraine, the Biden Administration would not want to entertain. Bennett reportedly said that he believed Iran might be deterred from enriching uranium to weapons grade if it knew that the U.S. and European countries would intensify sanctions to the extreme levels they have placed on Russia. Since Israel has not joined in those sanctions, one can only wonder how Blinken received the suggestion.
In any event, Bennett had already stated that Israel did not see itself as a party to the Iran deal. Earlier in March, moreover, as if to prove some independence from Washington, the U.A.E. hosted a state visit by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad—who remains in power thanks to brutality abetted by Iran and Russia. The chief U.S. negotiator on the Iran deal, Robert Malley, perhaps signalled acknowledgement of Israel’s developing partnership with the Gulf states when he announced in Doha, on Sunday, that Washington would not yet remove Iran’s Revolutionary Guards from the terrorism-sanctions list, and noted that the signing of the deal was “not just around the corner.”
Two other matters cast shadows on Blinken’s trip: Israel’s occupation of Palestine, especially the continuing expansion of the settlements, and its quasi-neutrality on Ukraine, both of which are a source of tension between Jerusalem and Washington. They may seem unrelated, but each has rendered Israel a sort of outsider among democratic states at a decisive moment. And Blinken chose to finesse both. Bennett has made much of his attempts to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv, but, in addition to remaining aloof from sanctions against Russia, Israel refuses to supply Ukraine with war matériel—in order to preserve, Lapid had said, Russian tolerance for its interdictions of Iranian-backed forces in Syria. Blinken, at a press conference with Bennett, tactfully praised Israel for the solidarity that it has shown with regards to Ukraine: joining the United Nations’ vote to condemn Vladimir Putin’s invasion; implementing new rules to prevent oligarchs from parking yachts and planes—and fortunes—in Israel (though Jewish oligarchs who are Israeli citizens, and have Israeli registered property, may well be able to elide them); setting up a field hospital in western Ukraine; and, last and apparently least, Bennett’s mediation efforts.
The question of Palestine was largely sidelined at the Sde Boker summit, though few doubt that the Saudis and Jordanians made a show of boycotting it largely to avoid providing scenes of senior Arab and Israeli diplomats hobnobbing for the world’s press, while Israeli occupation forces defended the at times violent settler zealots—which might have incited further violence in the West Bank and Amman, as Ramadan begins. Alas, that show seems to have been of little value. Eleven Israelis have been killed in three separate terror attacks during the past week. On Friday, a Palestinian man was shot and killed by soldiers in Hebron.
Blinken, apparently sensitive to this gap in the agenda, spent the afternoon before the summit with Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, who called the gathering a “harsh attack” on the Palestinian people, and decried a U.S. “double standard”: acting against Russia’s claims on the Ukraine, while tolerating Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Jordan’s King Abdullah II visited Abbas in Ramallah, on Monday, as the summit was taking place. Benny Gantz, the moderate Israeli Defense Minister, wanted to join that meeting, but Bennett, the annexationist Prime Minister, nixed the idea. Blinken, for his part, simply restated his endorsement of a “two-state” solution, while acknowledging that is not imminent. In the triangular crisis of Ukraine, Iran, and Palestine, the last issue seems the most deferrable at present.