Israel to host envoys for summit

Talks mark milestone in ties with UAE, Morocco, Bahrain

JERUSALEM -- Israel will host a summit this weekend with the top diplomats from the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bahrain.

Planned for Sunday and Monday, it is set to be the first meeting with top officials from three Arab countries on Israeli soil.

The upcoming meeting 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.

The Israeli foreign minister, Yair Lapid, will host the conference, which his ministry said Friday would bring together U.S. 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. Officials have not disclosed where the leaders are meeting.

The planned gathering demonstrates how relations between these countries and Israel have moved far beyond symbolism, said Yoel Guzansky, a former Israeli official and an expert on the Gulf at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli research group.

"In many ways, Israel is the center -- the epicenter -- of all kinds of developments that are taking place," Guzansky said. "Israel is the go-between, not just between Russia and Ukraine, but apparently between some of the Arab countries and Washington."

Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE has come under heavy U.S. pressure to raise its oil production to help reduce the world's reliance on Russian gas. It also angered Washington by abstaining from a U.S.-backed U.N. Security Council 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 U.S. expectations to condemn the Russian invasion.

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

"Israel is the only one that, kinetically perhaps, is taking on Iran -- in Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Iran itself," Guzansky said.

Israel was ostracized for years by all but two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan, as much of the Arab world refused to normalize 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. 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, an analyst for the Israel Policy Forum, a U.S.-based research group.

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 and Benny Gantz, the defense minister.

Gantz signed memorandums of understanding with both his Moroccan and Bahraini counterparts, the first such defense agreements between Israel and Arab countries.

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

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