US Secretary of State Antony Blinken kicks off a Middle East trip on Sunday in Israel, where he will take part in a rare Arab-Israeli summit and hold talks with regional partners on stalled Iran nuclear talks and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Blinken will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on the first leg of a Middle East and North Africa trip lasting until March 30.
Topping the agenda are the Iran nuclear talks, about which Israel and Gulf Arab states have voiced strong misgivings, and Russia’s monthlong invasion of Ukraine, a conflict in which Israel has emerged as a potential mediator.
“What you’ve got is a two-fold agenda,” Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said. “One is Ukraine, to talk about how we see things but also to hear from the Israelis, what they are picking up … The other part of it is going to be Iran, because there is every expectation on the Israeli side that we are going to see a deal.”
The nuclear talks had been close to an agreement several weeks ago until Russia made last-minute demands of the United States, insisting that sanctions imposed on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine should not affect its trade with Iran.
Lapid will host Blinken and their counterparts from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco at an Israeli desert retreat to discuss how to improve cooperation. The three Arab nations have been part of the so-called Abraham Accords, agreements brokered by the Trump administration in 2020 to normalize ties with Israel.
Egypt’s foreign minister, whose country on Saturday marked 43 years of peace with Israel, will also join the summit.
Blinken’s visit comes at a time when ties with several countries in the Middle East face challenges as key allies such as Israel and the UAE question the Biden administration’s commitment to the region.
While Washington’s strategic focus has been on China, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has further complicated US foreign policy priorities, leaving it to grapple with challenges on several fronts.
The venue for the foreign ministers’ meeting is Sde Boker, where Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, retired and is buried. The remote Negev desert farm collective has long been a symbol of Israeli innovation.
It will provide an opportunity for delegates to hold discussions in repose, an Israeli official involved in the planning said, calling it “our version of Camp David.”
Sde Boker may also have provided an uncontroversial alternative to Jerusalem, which Israel considers its capital – a status not recognized by most countries in the absence of a resolution to Palestinian claims on the city.
Blinken is set to visit the West Bank, Morocco and Algeria. He will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, the State Department said in a statement.