working groups

Officials arrive in Abu Dhabi for Negev Forum convening

The summit marks the third gathering since March

UAE Foreign Ministry

Negev Forum convening in Abu Dhabi

Some two hundred officials from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, the U.S. and Egypt are convening in Abu Dhabi today and Tuesday to discuss ways to strengthen and expand regional cooperation and integration in the Middle East. The Negev Forum convening marks the third gathering of the steering committee and first meeting of the working groups since the initial Negev Summit held in the Israeli desert last March.

Dana Erlich, director of the coordination department for the bureau of the Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Jewish Insider in a phone interview from Abu Dhabi that the focus of this week’s meeting was “to clarify and identify some concrete and tangible projects that we can move forward on and to create joint projects that will benefit the lives of all the people in the region.” 

The summit comes days after the UAE called on the United Nations Security Council to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the controversial visit last week of newly inaugurated National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Despite the tension, however, a 30-member Israeli delegation arrived in the Emirati capital on Monday.

“We are all just very happy to be here,” Erlich told JI. “We all understand the tensions and the politics, but we are all continuing to work together for a better future.”

Erlich said that Israel had not been concerned that the two-day meet-up would be canceled because of Ben Gvir’s actions at the sensitive site, which Muslims refer to as the Haram al-Sharif and consider it the third holiest site in Islam. She said arranging the gathering  which includes some 200 senior officials representing the six countries, was more a challenge of coordination and logistics.

“I think only once we arrived here today and saw the backdrop and the flags did we take a breath and say OK, it’s finally happening,’” she explained.

The first Negev Forum, held last March in Sde Boker, brought together foreign ministers from Israel, the United States, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt with the goal of strengthening the Abraham Accords normalization agreements signed during former President Donald Trump’s administration.

Then-Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Secretary of State Tony Blinken represented their countries at last year’s meeting, which was assembled in less than 72 hours and which concluded with an agreement to turn the forum into a regional framework to increase cooperation. 

It was also hoped that more Middle East countries would join the process but so far none have, including Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. More recently, at the UN’s Climate Change Summit COP27 in November, Amman signed bilateral and trilateral declarations of intent with Israel and the UAE on the issue of water security and energy.

“Jordan has been invited to join the Negev Forum and we’re still waiting for them to join,” said Erlich. “In general, the Negev Forum is one platform, one mechanism for cooperation and we’re still doing bilateral, trilateral and other geometric collaborations – the collaboration specifically with Jordan, is not part of the Negev Forum but obviously, they’re welcome to join, and we’ll see how the different projects can come together.”

An inaugural meeting of the Negev Forum Steering Committee, whose main objective is to further coordinate joint efforts and advance the common vision for the region, was held last June in Manama, Bahrain and another, virtual meeting was held in October.

At the first meeting, six working groups were established focusing on the areas of clean energy, education and coexistence, food and water security, health, regional security and tourism. It was also decided that the second Negev Forum would be held sometime this coming year in Morocco.

Israel’s delegation, headed by Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Alon Ushpiz, includes representatives from Israel’s Ministries of Defense, Health, Agriculture, Economy, Energy, Intelligence, Tourism and Education, as well as from the Water Authority and the National Security Council.

A U.S. delegation of some 40 officials and diplomats is also participating in the meet-up. Headed by State Department Counselor Derek Chollet, the mission includes representatives from the State Department, USAID, the Department of Defense, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as several other government agencies.

“It’s really just fantastic to see these relationships deepening, and we feel very optimistic about what we’ll be able to do in this forum,” Yael Lempert, the principal deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, told JI in an interview last June. Lempert, who last week was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as U.S. ambassador to Jordan, is part of the current delegation.

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