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Israel to host 3 Arab foreign ministers in historic meeting

Israel said it will host a “historic summit” beginning on Sunday, with the participation of top diplomats from the United States and three Arab states with which it has normalised ties.

Unimaginable half a decade ago, the high-level meeting reflects the new political reality created when Israel sealed landmark diplomatic agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020. If it goes ahead as planned, it will be the first gathering of its kind on Israeli soil, and highlights how Israel — which needed the United States to help broker the 2020 agreements — can now become a bridge between Washington and certain Arab governments.

It will provide a forum to discuss both disagreements and shared concerns about the Ukraine war; the possibility of a new nuclear deal with Iran; and the need to avoid a surge of violence in Israel and the occupied territories next month, when three important Jewish, Muslim and Christian holidays will overlap, reports Reuters.

The Israeli foreign minister, Yair Lapid, will host the conference, which his ministry said Friday would bring together US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, and Nasser Bourita, their Moroccan counterpart.

The meeting will take place against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and will give Blinken a chance to encourage Washington’s Middle Eastern allies to align with US efforts to isolate Russia.

The UAE has come under heavy US pressure to raise its oil production to help reduce the world’s reliance on Russian gas. It also angered Washington by abstaining from a US-backed United Nations resolution denouncing Russia’s invasion, and also by recently welcoming President Bashar Assad of Syria, whose diplomatic isolation the United States is seeking to maintain.

Israel — though praised by Washington for its role in mediating between Russia and Ukraine — has also avoided sanctioning Russia or condemning it too harshly. And Morocco, which relies on grain supplies from both Russia and Ukraine and is facing a growing economic crisis, has also resisted US expectations to condemn the Russian invasion.

The meeting also comes as Western-led negotiations are trying persuade Iran to scale back its nuclear programme — an effort that Israel has criticised because it fears this will lead to a deal that does not adequately restrict Iran.

The meeting demonstrates how shared fears of a nuclear Iran — as well as shared concerns about the perceived retreat of the United States from the region, and the opportunities afforded by greater economic ties between Israel and the Arab world — now seem to be a greater priority for several Arab governments than an immediate resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel was ostracised for years by all but two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan, as much of the Arab world refused to normalise ties until the creation of a Palestinian state. But that changed in 2020, when Israel established diplomatic relations with the UAE and Bahrain and reestablished them with Morocco.

The need to avoid a new wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians is nevertheless expected to be discussed at the summit, analysts said.

Tensions connected to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan escalated into an 11-day war last May between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip, led by the Islamist group Hamas. Officials and experts fear that the rare convergence next month of Ramadan, Passover and Easter, which can easily heighten tensions, may fuel further violence.

“Yes, there is Iran, and they will talk Ukraine — but there is also Jerusalem, and the memory of May 2021,” said Nimrod Novik, a former Israeli diplomat and an analyst for the Israel Policy Forum, a US-based research group. “Nobody wants May 2021 in April 2022.”

Once unthinkable, public visits by senior Israeli officials to the Gulf States and Morocco have become frequent, and even expected.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel visited the UAE in December and Bahrain in February, where he met with the countries’ rulers. The trips followed several visits to the Gulf and Morocco by Israeli ministers, including Lapid, the foreign minister, and Benny Gantz, the defence minister.

Gantz signed memorandums of understanding with both his Moroccan and Bahraini counterparts, the first such defence agreements between Israel and Arab countries. The deals will make it easier for the three countries to trade arms and military equipment, and to coordinate militarily.

Trade between Israel and the UAE increased roughly 20-fold in 2021, and Israel has also said it will post a military officer to Bahrain as part of a regional alliance given the task of combating piracy.

Israel’s warming ties with the Gulf have also encouraged Egypt to freshen its relationship with Israel, fearful of losing its role as a bridge betwe