JERUSALEM: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Israel on Sunday for a “historic” meeting with Arab countries that have normalized relations with the Jewish state under the US-brokered Abraham Accords.
Blinken, who arrived in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening, will meet his counterparts from Israel, Morocco, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in the Negev desert on Sunday and Monday to mark the shift in Arab-Israeli relations which started at the end of 2020.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called it a “historic high point”.
Blinken’s visit, the first leg of a trip that will also take him to the West Bank, Algeria and Morocco – where he will meet with the leader of the United Arab Emirates, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed – is partly focused on building support for Ukraine after the Russian invasion.
US officials say two other key issues are on the trip’s agenda: allaying Jewish state concerns over an impending nuclear deal with Iran and discussing the potential global shortage of wheat caused by the war in Ukraine which could deal a heavy blow to imports. Middle East dependent.
“We know this pain is keenly felt in the Middle East and North Africa, where most countries import at least half of their wheat,” largely from Ukraine, the department’s acting deputy secretary said. of State, Yael Lempert, before the trip.
The war “will only drive up the price of staples like bread in the region, taking money out of the pockets of the hardest working and most vulnerable families”, she said.
The trip comes as the United States and Iran are in the final stages of negotiating a relaunch of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which aimed to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapons capability.
The administration of former US President Donald Trump unilaterally backed out of the deal in 2018 and reimposed punitive economic sanctions, and Iran has since resumed many of its sensitive nuclear activities.
The conclusion of a renewed agreement could come in “days”, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who is coordinating talks with Tehran, said on Saturday.
“We are very close but there are still outstanding issues,” Borrell told reporters on the sidelines of the Doha Forum in Qatar.
His comments came as the EU diplomat chairing the Vienna talks on the deal, Enrique Mora, was due to visit Tehran.
US officials say reaching a deal depends on one or two key issues, but that Tehran must make “tough choices” if it wants a deal.
But the possible deal worries Israel and its US allies in the Gulf, who see Iran as a threat.
In February, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said he was “deeply troubled” by the prospect of a new nuclear deal, which Israel fears will not prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Ahead of the talks, Bennett sent a rare message to Saudi Arabia’s regional powerhouse, expressing “sadness” at a wave of attacks by Iran-backed Yemeni rebels on Friday that hit targets including an oil factory near the Formula 1 race in Jeddah.
“This attack is further proof that Iran’s regional aggression knows no bounds,” Bennett wrote on Twitter Saturday night.
Blinken will also meet Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Palestinians remain concerned that they are being overlooked in US-backed pressure on Arab governments to strengthen relations with Israel and focus on Iran as their main threat.
The Trump administration has reduced its support for the Palestinians and closed the American consulate in Jerusalem dedicated to Palestinian relations.
Biden has promised to reopen the consulate, but a year into his administration that move has not happened.
The consulate issue “will definitely be a topic of discussion,” Lempert said.
After Israel, Blinken will travel to Morocco and Algeria to talk about regional security and the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which has divided the two neighbors.
Also in Morocco, he will meet with Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE, who has become a major political force in the region.