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Israel to Host 3 Arab Foreign Ministers in Historic Meeting

JERUSALEM — Israel will host a historic summit this weekend with the top diplomats from the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bahrain, a sign of how quickly the realignment of Middle Eastern powers is accelerating as Israelis and some Arab governments find common cause not only over Iran but in navigating the new global realities created by the Ukraine war.

Unimaginable half a decade ago, the high-level meeting reflects the new political reality created when Israel sealed landmark diplomatic agreements with the U.A.E., Bahrain and Morocco in 2020. Planned for Sunday and Monday, it is set to be the first meeting with top officials from three Arab countries on Israeli soil, and highlights how Israel — which needed the United States to help broker the 2020 accords — can now become a bridge between Washington and certain Arab governments.

The groundbreaking visit will add the three foreign ministers to a very short list of high-level Arab visitors to Israel — starting with Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who shocked Israelis by flying to Israel in 1977 and calling for peace in an address to the Knesset, or parliament. Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Sadat’s successor, visited in 1995 to deliver a eulogy at the funeral of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. King Hussein of Jordan also visited Israel several times, including for Mr. Rabin’s funeral.

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 on Friday would bring together Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state; Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Emirati foreign minister; Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, the Bahraini foreign minister; and Nasser Bourita, their Moroccan counterpart. Officials haven’t 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,” Mr. Guzansky said. “Israel is the go-between, not just between Russia and Ukraine, but apparently between some of the Arab countries and Washington.”

The meeting will take place against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and will give Mr. Blinken a chance to encourage Washington’s Middle East allies to align with American efforts to isolate Russia.

Like Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. has come under heavy American pressure to raise its oil production to help reduce the world’s reliance on Russian gas. It also angered Washington by abstaining from an American-backed United Nations Security Council resolution denouncing Russia’s invasion, and also by recently welcoming President Bashar al-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 American 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.

It has become increasingly clear that shared fears of a nuclear Iran — as well as shared concerns about the perceived retreat of the United States from the region, and the opportunities afforded by greater economic ties between Israel and the Arab world — now seem to be a greater priority for several Arab governments than an immediate resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Israel is the only one that, kinetically perhaps, is taking on Iran — in Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Iran itself,” Mr. 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 U.A.E. 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 Gaza, led by the Islamist group Hamas. 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, a former Israeli diplomat and an analyst for the Israel Policy Forum, a U.S.-based research group. “Nobody wants May 2021 in April 2022.”

Once unthinkable, 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 U.A.E. 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 Mr. Lapid, the foreign minister, and Benny Gantz, the defense minister.

Mr. Gantz signed memorandums of understanding with both his Moroccan and Bahraini counterparts, the first such defense agreements between Israel and Arab countries. The deals will make it easier for the three countries to trade arms and military equipment, and to coordinate militarily.

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

Israel’s warming ties with the Gulf have also encouraged Egypt to freshen its relationship with Israel, fearful of losing its role as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world. Egypt was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, in 1978, and their respective militaries later developed relatively good ties — but public displays of warmth have been rare.

That has changed since 2020, as Egypt tried to play catch up.

The two countries announced a new flight route this month between the resort city of Sharm el Sheikh and Tel Aviv, in addition to an existing route between Tel Aviv and Cairo. Earlier this week, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt welcomed Mr. Bennett and the Emirati crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, to Sharm el Sheikh for the first trilateral meeting between leaders of the three countries.

Mr. Sisi also won praise in Israel in February by warmly greeting a visiting Israeli minister, Karine Elharrar, in front of hundreds of other Arab politicians.

But polling suggests that a majority of Arab public opinion still lags far behind the leaders’ stance, with most Arabs opposing normalized ties with Israel.

When Mr. Bennett visited Bahrain in February, small groups of protesters demonstrated against his presence, despite strict measures against public protest in the kingdom.

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