Jerusalem (CNN) – There have been a lot of “firsts” and “unthinkable” moments since Israel signed the normalization agreements with several Arab nations less than two years ago that were dubbed the “Abraham Accords.” But few likely come to the level of four foreign ministers from Arab nations, along with the US Secretary of State, meeting together in Israel and posing for photos with their arms intertwined.
Attended by Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the historic summit, held in the southern Israeli desert city of Sde Boker in the Negev desert, was the first time that the UAE and Moroccan diplomats publicly visited Israel.
The Palestinians weren’t present at the talks, but a series of attacks in Israel this month served as a reminder that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is always nearby.
Five people were killed in a shooting near Tel Aviv on Tuesday, according to Israeli police, marking the third such attack in Israel within a week.
And, in a sign of the ever-present divides in the region, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack, while Palestinian militant groups praised it. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades — the armed wing of the Palestinian Fatah movement — took responsibility for the attack and said it was “a clear message written in blood in response to the Negev summit.”
Aside from turning the Abraham Accords from “ceremony to substance,” as Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said, the meeting also illustrated the changing power structure of the region as the US pivots away from the Middle East.
Much of what bonds these countries together is a common stance on Iran, especially as negotiations to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal reach an advanced stage.
The meeting was an opportunity for the foreign ministers to express their disappointment in what they see as a weak deal, one that will only further bolster what they see as Tehran’s destabilizing activities in the region, like supporting militant organizations from Lebanon to Yemen.
“These shared interests revolve around countering Iran and dealing with the vacuum the US is leaving behind,” said Ezzedine Fishere, professor at Dartmouth College and former Egyptian diplomat in Tel Aviv. “The two issues are intertwined.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Monday that the “new regional architecture” with Arab countries “intimidates and deters … Iran and its proxies,” but the UAE has been keen to present its regional alignments in a wider context, as part of a changing world order that is no longer unipolar.
Top UAE official Anwar Gargash told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Tuesday that the “Middle East is not really only about Iran … and Israel.”
“Our whole intention is to find a way of functionally working with Iran … that there is an agenda of stability or prosperity in the region that includes Iran and others,” said Gargash, who is a diplomatic adviser to the UAE president.
Fishere said Gulf states started feeling America’s “reticence” to support them as far back as 2006 “when the Bush administration suddenly lost appetite to push back Iranian influence in Iraq.”
“And as [President] Obama decided to take few steps back, Gulf states found someone else eager to step in and help: Israel,” he added.
For months, Bennett has said he hopes to one day form a regional security alliance — like NATO — to counter Iran, no matter what happens with the nuclear deal. While a regional NATO-like grouping may be far off, there has been progress on security cooperation between the countries and the foreign ministers did agree to meet on a regular basis, rotating the host country each time.
“[T]he emergence of a new regional architecture cannot and will not happen overnight,” said Nimrod Novik, a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum and former foreign policy adviser to late Israeli president Shimon Peres. “It starts with discrete nano steps, continues with mini steps, before morphing into a mature structure. It seems that in the Negev, an important mini-step in that direction was taken.” The alliance sends a message to the US and Arab public opinion as much as it does to Iran, Fishere said.
“It sends a message… that a new page has turned, rules have changed,” he said. “Arab states are no longer bound by Pan-Arab solidarities, sensitivities or causes, including Palestine — not even symbolically.”
The absence of the Palestinians is “an important win” for Israel, said Hasan Alhasan, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain. It allows it to present its relations with the Arab world as being unconstrained by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said.
The summit was “an opportunity for Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt to act as a pressure group vis-à-vis Washington on Iran,” Alhasan added.
The meeting was heavy on symbolism and optics. It was held not in Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital, or Tel Aviv, where most foreign embassies in Israel are located. Instead, it took place in a desert retreat where Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, is buried. A figure long detested in the Arab world, Ben-Gurion is seen as an emblem of Zionism, Israel’s state ideology, who viewed Jewish settlement in the Negev as vital to the state’s future.
“Holding the summit in the Negev desert that borders Egypt and Jordan, rather than in Tel Aviv… or in Jerusalem, where Israel’s claim of sovereignty remains unrecognized by Arab nations, hints at Israeli overtures towards the Arab world,” Alhasan said.
But while the Palestinians may have been absent, Israel’s conflict with them continues to creep into its talks with the Arab states, said Novik.
“Time and again the old and new normalizers remind us Israelis that the Abraham Accords… are not immune to the effect of violence between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said. “This was a message conveyed behind closed doors — and made public — in the Negev.”
With additional reporting from Nadeen Ebrahim, Adam Pourahmadi and Abbas Al Lawati