Leaders of Israel, U.A.E. and Egypt Meet Amid Shifting Geopolitics

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CAIRO — Egypt hosted the first summit with leaders of Israel and the United Arab Emirates on Monday and Tuesday, the latest sign of a swift realignment of Middle Eastern political alliances since Israel established diplomatic relations in 2020 with several Arab countries.

Governments in all three countries were circumspect on what Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett; the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed; and Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, discussed at their meeting in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Israel said only that they had focused on ways to strengthen the relationships between the three countries, and a spokesman for Egypt’s presidency, apparently wary of lingering domestic hostility toward Israel, described talks between the Emirati leader and the Egyptian president without even mentioning Mr. Bennett.

But the deliberately vague statements obscured an important development in the region, analysts said, as the Middle Eastern powers appeared to band together to navigate their fraught relationships with the Biden administration, amid the quickly changing geopolitical landscape precipitated by Russia’s war on Ukraine. All three countries have faced heavy pressure from Washington to shun Russia and, in the Emirates’ case, also to supply more oil to a world trying to wean itself off Russian energy.

That arm-twisting has come as the United States pursues a renewed nuclear deal with Iran, a rival of both Israel and the U.A.E., that would lift international sanctions on Tehran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. The Emirates and another important American ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, have complained about what they see as a lack of American support after attacks that were linked to Iran.

“It’s quite interesting to see them saying that, from now on, we are going to talk like one team,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political analyst. “They want to send not an individual message, but a collective message, and it is both to Iran and to America. The combined forces of these major regional U.S. allies will be heard better than each one of them talking to Washington alone.”

For decades, Israel was ostracized by all but two Arab countries, Jordan and Egypt. For most Arab governments, Israel’s ongoing occupation of territories claimed by the Palestinians precluded any diplomatic entente and even in those capitals, Amman and Cairo, leaders sought to keep their relationships with Israel below the radar.

But the very public summit in Sharm el-Sheikh highlighted how the advantages of greater economic ties with Israel and the shared fear of a nuclear Iran now seem to be of greater immediate priority to some Arab leaders than a quick resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nuclear talks between the United States, five other global powers and Iran have been nearing a resolution but currently hinge on a sticky Iranian demand: that Washington stop designating the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its powerful military force, as a terrorist organization.

Israel and Washington’s other Middle East allies have lobbied the Biden administration not to give in, saying they fear that doing so would strengthen Iranian proxy groups across the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

Cooperation is speeding up on other fronts as well. The meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh followed Mr. Bennett’s visits to Bahrain in February and to the Emirates in December, both firsts for an Israeli prime minister as well.

Amid the warming Emirati-Israeli ties, the fact that Egypt hosted the summit suggests it is playing catch-up, said Nimrod Novik, an analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, a research group, and an expert on Israeli-Egyptian relations.

Cairo is less concerned about the Iran deal than the others, said H.A. Hellyer, a Middle East scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Royal United Services Institute. But it may see an opportunity to regain its historic role as a mediator.

“The Egyptians were less than happy in losing their presumed role as liaisons between Israel and the Arab world,” Mr. Novik said. “As far as Sisi is concerned, this is a marker that says: ‘We remain relevant to the emerging, new context.’”

Thanks to the Ukraine war, Egypt is also looking to step up its exports of liquefied natural gas to Europe, something it cannot accomplish without Israel, which provides much of the raw gas that Egypt processes and re-exports, said Abdelmonem Said Aly, a political analyst and writer aligned with the Egyptian state.

The Ukraine war has rocked the Middle East on several fronts, including by pushing up food prices and threatening economies across the region, making regional collaboration more urgent, he said.

Its economy shaken by the Ukraine war, Egypt hopes to attract Israeli tourists to its Red Sea resorts and to drum up Persian Gulf investment in the country. Both gambits are already seeing some success: Israel and Egypt just announced new direct flights between Israel and Sharm el-Sheikh and Emirati investors this week said they would buy up large chunks of Egyptian banks.

Israeli media reported that Mr. Bennett’s visit was the first time that an Israeli prime minister had stayed overnight in Egypt in two decades.

Analysts said the leaders may also have discussed how to limit the risk of a flare-up in the occupied territories in the coming weeks, when the convergence of the Muslim festival of Ramadan, the Christian holiday of Easter and the Jewish Passover is likely to raise tensions.

Egypt has often mediated between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, including during last year’s 11-day war in Gaza, which followed a period of heightened tensions around Ramadan.

“The Egyptians and the Emiratis and others are concerned about the convergence of the three holidays, and they do not want to see a reincarnation of what happened last May, or perhaps worse,” Mr. Novik said.

Mr. Hellyer said the tripartite warmth may prove to be only temporary, given the three countries’ varying interests.

The leaders also discussed another source of tension between the United States and its Arab allies: the gradual emergence of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, from his long regional isolation. Mr. al-Assad has spent a decade out in the cold because of his brutal crackdown on his own people during the Syrian civil war.

And after quiet signs over the last few years that Arab countries were willing to resume relations with the Syrian leader, he visited the Emirati capital last week.

The meeting in Egypt this week raised the question of whether the fallout from the war in Ukraine will reshape the region’s alliances in a more lasting way.

“Whether this is the basis for a lasting triumvirate is unclear,” Mr. Hellyer said. “Only time will tell.”

Merna Thomas contributed reporting from Cairo.

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