At First Foreign Ministers' Joint Meeting, US, Israel, UAE, India Discuss Harnessing Strategic Ties

In his remarks, US Secretary of State Blinken described Israel, the UAE and India as three of "our most strategic partners".

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New Delhi: At a closed-door virtual conference in Jerusalem, minister of external affairs S. Jaishankar met with his counterparts from the United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates – their joint meeting indicating Washington’s interest to bring India into its embrace in West Asia, after the Indo-Pacific.

Jaishankar, who is currently on a five-day visit to Israel, was accompanied by the home nation’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, during the quadrilateral-level meeting on Monday, while US secretary of state Antony Blinken and UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan participated virtually from Washington and London, respectively.

According to the Israeli foreign ministry’s readout, the four-nation meeting was proposed by Lapid during his visit to Washington last week.

It also said that the primary outcome of the meeting was an in-principle agreement to establish an “international forum for economic cooperation”.

“At the end of the conversation, it was decided that each minister will appoint senior-level professionals to a joint working group that will formulate options for cooperation in the aforementioned areas,” said the Israeli press statement.

They also discussed a quick follow-up in-person meeting of the four ministers “in the coming months at Expo 2020 in Dubai”.

In his remarks, Blinken described Israel, the UAE and India as three of “our most strategic partners”. He said by “bringing friends together in new ways, we are making these partnerships even greater than the sum of their parts”.

“I think that is what this gathering is about. Sitting here in Washington I can say very simply that with Israel, the UAE and India we have three of our most strategic partners. And given so many overlapping interests – energy, climate, trade, regional security – this seems like a really interesting and good idea to try and use this new format and very complementary capabilities in very many areas to just see many more things get done. That’s the idea,” Blinken said.

Lapid, who is also Israel’s Alternate Prime Minister, noted that “one of the things we are looking for is synergy, and that is what we will try and create after this meeting.”

“Synergy which will help us work together in all the areas that pre-occupies us. Around this table we have a unique set of capabilities, knowledge and experiences that can be used to create a network that we all want to create,” Lapid said.

The Israeli leader felt that the key to achieving what they were aiming at was quickly moving from government-to-government to business-to-business.

He emphasised the need for this quadrilateral grouping to quickly put adequate mechanisms in place to translate efforts into real businesses around the globe.

“During the meeting, the four ministers held a discussion on possibilities for joint infrastructure projects in the fields of transportation, technology, maritime security, and economics and trade, as well as for additional joint projects,” said the Israeli readout.

The US state department spokesperson listed the following agenda items – “expanding economic and political cooperation in the Middle East and Asia, including through trade, combating climate change, energy cooperation, and increasing maritime security”. He also added two more topics – people to people ties in technology and science, and global public health concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.

There were no separate official press releases from India or the UAE.

The UAE’s Al Nahyan thanked Blinken and Lapid for graciously “proposing the idea” of creating this kind of a forum to boost cooperation.

Talking about India, the UAE minister said, “Minister Jaishankar is an old friend, I could say, but also India and the UAE have such a strong and diverse relationship.”

Touching upon bureaucratic hurdles that often slow down such initiatives, Al Nahyan suggested businesses should be surprised by opportunities and then it should be observed how the trading community responds, in terms of putting a robust plan forward.

Jaishankar, in his brief comment, said, “The three of you are among the closest relationships we have, if not the closest”.

He agreed with Blinken that this kind of forum could work much better than three different bilateral engagements. Jaishankar cited the fight against COVID-19 at a difficult time as an example of the benefits of such cooperative mechanisms where bilateral ties tend to fail.

“I think it is very clear that on the big issues of our times we all think very similarly and what would be helpful would be if we could agree on some practical things to work upon,” Jaishankar said.

Later, the four foreign ministers entered a closed discussion to draw a strategy to make this quadrilateral cooperative plan a reality.

Also read: What We Can Expect From Joe Biden’s Policy Towards West Asia

Reports have indicated a new quad post the Abraham accords being inked last year. In August 2020, Israel, the UAE and the US signed Abraham Accords. The accord helped Israel and the UAE normalise their ties. India had welcomed the agreement, saying it “has always supported peace and stability in West Asia which is our extended neighbourhood.”

India and Israel elevated bilateral relations to a strategic partnership during the historic visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel in July 2017.

Since then, the relationship between the two countries has focused on expanding knowledge-based partnership, including collaboration in innovation and research.

Speaking to The Wire, India’s former ambassador to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Talmiz Ahmad, stated the meeting seemed to have “cobbled” together to get the maximum publicity. “India already has substantial ties with all of them… I would say that the grouping has no strategic value. Basically, they are exploring that areas they can work together, which mostly would be in the area of technology,” he said.

While the more well-known ‘Quad’ had been formed with an eye on China, the four countries that met on Monday shared no similar strategic challenge in the region.

In recent weeks, the Biden administration has been actively projecting the Abraham Accords as a diplomatic turning point for Israel. The Israeli paper Haaretz observed that Blinken had stated that the US wants more international cooperation agreements based on the Abraham Accords and would work to get additional countries to sign similar deals with Israel. The newspaper cited Israeli sources as asserting ahead of the Tuesday meeting that the signing of the Abraham Accords bolstered Israel’s standing internationally and has drawn political and economic interest among various countries.

After the meeting, the US state department spokesperson noted that Blinken had “reiterated the Biden Administration’s support for the Abraham Accords and normalisation agreements and discussed future opportunities for collaboration in the region and globally”.

Ahmad said the Abraham Accords had been drafted “in a specific context” in the last year of the Trump administration. Most analysts had agreed that the deal had been crafted to give political momentum to Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, with both the Israeli and Emirati leadership keen to see him return to the White House. Over a year later, neither Trump nor Benjamin Netanyahu are at the helm of their countries.

So far, the UAE has been joined by Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in the Abraham Accords. However, only UAE and Bahrain have exchanged diplomatic personnel, with Sudan and Morocco yet to fully go ahead due to strong domestic opposition.

(With PTI inputs)

Note: This article was originally published at 11:15 am on October 19, 2021 and was updated with additional details at 7:35 pm on October 19, 2021.