By Humeyra Pamuk
SDE BOKER, Israel, March 28 (Reuters) – The top diplomats of the United States and four Arab countries convened in Israel on Monday in a display of unity against Iran but also used the rare summit to press their host to revive long-stalled peacemaking with the Palestinians.
Concluding two days of discussions at a desert retreat where its founding father David Ben-Gurion is buried, Israel said the event would be repeated and expanded as it builds up commercial and security ties with like-minded Sunni Arab states.
“This new architecture – the shared capabilities we are building – intimidates and deters our common enemies, first and foremost Iran and its proxies,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said alongside his U.S., Emirati, Bahrani, Moroccan and Egyptian counterparts.
Israel and some Arab countries worry that an emerging nuclear deal with Iran will leave Tehran with the means to build a bomb and bolster Iranian-backed guerrillas.
The United States and other world powers see restoring a 2015 Iranian nuclear deal as their best option. But U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered Washington’s regional allies reassurances in the event that diplomacy failed.
“As neighbours and, in the case of the United States, as friends, we will also work together to confront common security challenges and threats, including those from Iran and its proxies,” he said.
U.S. officials briefing reporters on the meeting said there was a straightforward discussion on Iran and Blinken assured the foreign ministers that Washington would coordinate to counter Iran’s behaviour in the region, whether or not the nuclear deal is revived.
‘NOT A SUBSTITUTE’
The UAE, Bahrain and Morocco normalised ties with Israel under a 2020 U.S. initiative known as the Abraham Accords. Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab state to make peace with Israel.
While hailing the accords, Blinken added: “We have to be clear that these regional peace agreements are not a substitute for progress between Palestinians and Israelis”.
The atmosphere at Monday’s meeting was very positive, very cooperative, the U.S. officials said.
The countries agreed to establish working groups on counterterrorism, water and food security, energy, education, tourism and public health, the officials said.
“But the other thing that did come up was how we can ensure that the Palestinians benefit from the energy that is being devoted and created from these normalization agreements,” one of the senior State Department officials said.
Like the Arab countries present, the United States wants to see a Palestinian state established alongside Israel. Talks to that end stalled in 2014. Israel has settled much of the occupied West Bank while the Gaza Strip, another Palestinian territory, is ruled by hardline Islamists.
The cross-partisan coalition government of nationalist Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said conditions are not right for any renewal of diplomacy with the Palestinians who, for their part, have placed the onus on Israel.
“Unless the occupation ends, Arab normalisation meetings are nothing but an illusion and free reward for Israel,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh told his Cabinet on Monday.
Jordan’s King Abdullah arrived in Ramallah to hold talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a first such visit in years that was expected to focus on efforts to reduce regional tensions ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
A U.S. official said Jordan, which made peace with Israel in 1994 but did not join Monday’s summit, was invited and would be “warmly welcomed” to future gatherings.
Israel was jarred on Sunday by a shooting spree by two Islamic State-aligned Arab citizens who killed two police officers. Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said his presence alongside the other Arab delegates at the Israeli-hosted summit was “the best response to such attacks”.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani described the discussions as helpful to fend off Iranian-backed groups like Hezbollah. “Of course, part of this process will be renewed efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” he added.
In another sign the allies were closing ranks against Iran, the Israeli ambassador to Manama, Eitan Naeh, said on Monday that Israel will appoint a military attache to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain soon. Read full story
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawfta in Ramallah; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Howard Goller)