The so-called Negev Summit hosted by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid last week, attended by the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Morocco, along with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, signified Israel's full partnership in a consolidated axis of reactionary powers in the Middle East. This is the fruit of the 2020 Abraham Accords, in which the UAE and Bahrain, and subsequently Morocco and Sudan, normalized their relations with Israel. While currently focused on Iran, this "axis of reaction" has opposed popular demands for democracy and social justice and reinforced autocracy across the entire Middle East and North Africa.
Conspicuously absent from the confab in Israel's southern desert—the Negev, or Naqab in Arabic—were the Saudis and Jordanians. But according to Henrique Cymerman, an Israeli journalist and the president of the Israel-Gulf Cooperation Council Chamber of Commerce, "The Saudis were the real enablers of the meeting."
Morocco, a long-time U.S. ally, openly joined this club when it formally recognized Israel in exchange for the Trump administration's recognition of its annexation of Western Sahara, which it invaded and occupied after Spain evacuated the territory in 1975. Like Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory, Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara clearly violates international law. Until Donald Trump, every American president had deferred to the United Nations to resolve its status.
While currently focused on Iran, this "axis of reaction" has opposed popular demands for democracy and social justice and reinforced autocracy across the entire Middle East and North Africa.
- Joel Beinin
For the Arab foreign ministers in the Negev, the goal of the gathering was to reaffirm their opposition to restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, which the U.S. pulled out of under Trump. While reportedly imminent, a final agreement has not been achieved. Blinken sought to convince the parties that reinstituting the JCPOA remains the best way to ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon.
The agenda in the Negev had a few glaring omissions, starting with any discussion of the massive human rights violations of all the participating parties. The question of Palestine was also barely mentioned. This largely explains the absence of the Saudis and Jordanians, who, while willing to demonize Iran, are wary of brazenly betraying the Palestinians, although they have not-so-covertly done so for years.
Since July 2020, just before the UAE and Israel announced their sudden normalization, two Israeli NGOs, Yesh Din and B'Tselem, along with Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and, most recently, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, have all published reports concluding that Israel is committing the crime of apartheid under international law. But Israel's Arab interlocutors at the Negev Summit appeared uninterested in this subject.
By ignoring Palestine, Lapid could claim that the meeting promoted "building a new regional architecture based on progress, technology, religious tolerance, security and intelligence cooperation." Security and intelligence cooperation are the most important items on this list, although profit is intertwined with them. Mubadala Capital, a unit of Abu Dhabi's $243 billion state-owned investment company, has been an investor in notorious Israeli spyware company NSO Group since 2019. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi and principal architect of the axis of reaction, is one of Mubadala's largest investors.
In November 2021, the U.S. Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO Group, charging that it had supplied its Pegasus spyware to governments that had used it to "maliciously target" government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics and embassy workers. A Washington Post investigation revealed that UAE security officials installed Pegasus spyware on two phones belonging to Hanan Elatr, the fiancé of the late Jamal Khashoggi, in the months before his murder, allowing her conversations and movements to be monitored without her knowing that her phone was compromised.
The Israeli government authorizes all exports of NSO's Pegasus spyware. As a senior Israeli Cabinet minister recently confirmed, "We sold this technology to [the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia], so they can fight together our common enemy, Iran." Lapid himself declared at the conclusion of the summit. "The shared capabilities we are building intimidates and deters our common enemies, first and foremost Iran and its proxies. They certainly have something to fear."
This absurd turn of events reveals the contradiction underlying U.S. policy in the Middle East and why it embraces allies with egregious human rights records.
- Joel Beinin
The Arab ministers in the Negev were unhappy that the United States has not acted more decisively against the Houthis in Yemen after they attacked an Aramco fuel depot in Jeddah only days before the summit convened. Although Biden promised to "end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen"—where the U.S. may be liable for laws-of-war violations, because of its extensive logistical and intelligence support and arms sales to Riyadh—his administration has continued to sell the Saudis weapons under the dubious claim that they are only "defensive."
Saudi and UAE atrocities in Yemen were also studiously ignored by the summit's attendees. Saudi- and Emirati-led forces have killed or maimed over 19,000 Yemeni civilians in airstrikes alone since they intervened in Yemen in 2015, while the total number of deaths due to the conflict is over 377,000—60 percent of them due to hunger, lack of medicine and basic health care, unsafe water, and an outbreak of cholera. Over 24 million Yemenis require humanitarian assistance and 19 million face food insecurity, which will be exacerbated by the cutoff of wheat supplies from Ukraine and Russia.
Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel back in 1979, maintains the largest carceral regime in the region, with at least 60,000 political prisoners. This too was not on the agenda of the Negev Summit. During the U.S. presidential election campaign, candidate Biden promised that Trump's "favorite dictator," Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, would receive no more "blank checks" if he were elected. But as with the Saudi war in Yemen, Biden has failed to uphold his commitments on Egypt.
The 2020 State Department report on human rights in Egypt bemoaned the Sisi regime's extrajudicial killings, violence against LGBTQ people and forced child labor, in addition to its massive detention of political opponents. Last fall, Congress made a weak gesture to implement Biden's promise, by withholding $300 million of Egypt's annual $1.3 billion in military aid. However, Secretary Blinken reduced the amount of military aid withheld to a symbolic $130 million. In January, just days after the Biden administration said that Egypt had not met the conditions for releasing that withheld amount, it approved an additional $2.5 billion in arms sales to Egypt, which the State Department said "will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States."
This absurd turn of events reveals the contradiction underlying U.S. policy in the Middle East and why it embraces allies with egregious human rights records. Every U.S. president except Trump would have preferred Israel to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians. The Biden administration would prefer that the Saudis halt the war against Yemen, or at least reduce the number of civilian casualties. The incarceration of tens of thousands of Egyptians and their subjection to torture and physical abuse, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad dispatched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, serve no U.S. interest.
But the strategic alliance with the unsavory states that convened at the Negev Summit, and the profits that the military-industrial complex reaps from supplying arms to them, are keystones of America's imperial hegemony in the Middle East. Among policymakers and their think tank and journalistic groupies, preserving the empire far outweighs any concerns they may have about human rights or self-determination, whether for the Palestinian or Sahrawi people. The repressive monarchies of the Gulf and Morocco, Egypt's praetorian dictatorship and apartheid Israel—all willing, if sometimes unruly, partners in the American empire—comprise the core of the "new regional architecture" proclaimed at the Negev Summit.