U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the top diplomats of Israel and four Arab states held a landmark meeting Monday to discuss issues from the Iran nuclear negotiations to the global shockwaves of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The talks brought together for the first time on Israeli soil the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco — which all normalized ties with the Jewish state in 2020 — and of Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1979.
Its late-Sunday opening, in the Sde Boker kibbutz deep in the Negev desert, was marred by a shooting attack in northern Israel that killed two police officers and was claimed by the Islamic State group, which has rarely managed to stage attacks inside Israel.
And early Monday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office confirmed he had caught Covid, a day after he held closed-door meetings with Blinken, followed by joint press conference without masks.
The State Department said Blinken, who was out jogging in the Negev early Monday, was the only member of the U.S. delegation considered a “close contact” of Bennett’s and that he would follow public health guidelines “including by masking and undergoing appropriate testing”.
The Negev meeting takes place as the United States and European allies have expressed quiet frustration that Middle East countries generally have not shown strong support for efforts to back Ukraine following Russia’s invasion and have not distanced themselves from Moscow.
But Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas rebuffed any pressure to criticize Russia, instead castigating the West for “double standards” that he said penalized Moscow while ignoring Israel’s “crimes” against the Palestinians.
“The current events in Europe have shown blatant double standards,” he told Blinken on Sunday.
“Despite the crimes of the Israeli occupation that amounted to ethnic cleansing and racial discrimination… we find no one who is holding Israel responsible for behaving as a state above the law,” he said.
– Iran nuclear deal –
The talks on restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal were high on the agenda in meetings Blinken held Sunday with Israel’s Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog.
Speaking alongside Lapid, Blinken said the US believes restoring the agreement is “the best way to put Iran’s (nuclear) program back in the box” after the US withdrew from the deal under former president Donald Trump in 2018.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief said at the weekend that an agreement with Iran to restore the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action could be reached “in a matter of days”.
Blinken stressed that “when it comes to the most important element, we see eye-to-eye” with Israel.
“We are both committed, both determined, that Iran will never acquire a nuclear weapon.”
Lapid said the two sides “have disagreements” about the deal, whose restoration is in the final stages of negotiation in Vienna after almost a year of on-and-off talks.
But “open and honest dialogue is part of the strength of our friendship,” Lapid said.
“At the same time, Israel will do anything we believe is needed to stop the Iranian nuclear program.”
– Terror group listing –
Bennett, after his meeting with Blinken, said Israel was specifically concerned that the United States could meet one of Iran’s reported demands — to remove its designation of the country’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a “foreign terrorist organization”.
Speaking in Doha on Sunday, Robert Malley, the principal US negotiator for the Iran nuclear talks, played down that issue, noting that in any agreement the IRGC would remain under heavy US economic sanctions.
In Israel Sunday, Blinken also discussed strategies to ensure calm this year during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Christian Easter celebrations and the Jewish Passover holiday, which overlap.
Tensions in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital, partly fuelled an 11-day conflict in May last year with the Islamist group Hamas which controls the Gaza Strip.
Blinken stressed the need to “prevent actions on all sides that could raise tensions, including (Jewish) settlement expansion” in occupied Palestinian territories, a rare in-person condemnation of Israeli efforts to expand the Jewish settler population.