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  • At the end of the Negev Forum Working Group meetings in Abu Dhabi, Counselor Chollet, USUN Rome Ambassador Cindy McCain, and Senior Official for Public Diplomacy Liz Allen talked about the outcomes of the meetings and next steps.  

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub.  I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing on the Negev Forum.   

We have a number of senior officials with us today who will speak about the progress made over the past two days here in Abu Dhabi at the Negev Forum working group meetings.  The officials with us today are Derek Chollet, Counselor of the U.S. Department of State; Liz Allen, the State Department’s Senior Official for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs; and Ambassador Cindy McCain, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN Agencies in Rome.  Unfortunately, Yael Lempert, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, is unable to join us for the call today.   

We will have some opening remarks from our speakers, and then they will take questions from participating reporters.  We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic.  We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.   

I will now turn it over to Counselor Chollet to begin our opening remarks.  Sir, the floor is yours. 

MR CHOLLET:  Thanks, everyone, for joining us.  Good afternoon, good morning.  We’re grateful for the opportunity to speak with you all today.  We just concluded two days of very productive meetings here in Abu Dhabi of the Negev Forum working groups, with a number of senior representatives from the governments of Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates.  This was a significant meeting of the working groups.  There were around 150 officials representing the different countries part of the Negev Forum.  It was the largest meeting between Israel and its regional partners since the Madrid Summit in 1991.  So we believe that this represents another critical step in the advancement of the Negev Forum process.   

Now, today’s meeting is a direct follow-on to the initial Negev Summit held in March of 2022 in Israel that Secretary of State Blinken attended along with his minister counterparts, where the Negev Forum was established.  And what the Negev Forum did was create six working groups that met over the past two days, which was focused on the core themes of the Negev process.  And these six working groups cover regional security, clean energy, food and water security, health, tourism, and education and coexistence.  And I myself served as the co-chair on the U.S. side of the regional security working group, and my colleagues Ambassador McCain and Liz Allen represent – were co-chairs of other working groups, and they’ll speak to that in a moment.   

Now, during our sessions with our partners, we continued pursuing the overall goal of advancing coordinated initiatives that will encourage regional integration, cooperation, and development, for the benefit of all people of the region.  And we were very focused in all of our working group sessions on coming up with tangible outcomes that we believe can benefit all people of the region, and that would include – including representatives who are not necessarily at the table.  So that – we’re focused on strengthening the Palestinian economy and improving the quality of life of Palestinians, among others. 

So very specifically, we sought to develop clear, concrete, and pragmatic steps that will bolster integration and help us augment security, peace, and economic prosperity in the region.  The U.S. sent quite a large delegation to these meetings, including senior officials from eight U.S. Government agencies.  We were able to fully engage with a range of expertise in discussion with our partners from Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, the Emirates, and Israel.   

And our progress with this Negev Forum initiative will build upon the already notable benefits within the region that have developed since the signing of the Abraham Accords and related agreements over two years ago.  And this meeting and the entire Negev process is a direct outgrowth of that great success in the Abraham Accords two-some years ago.   

We continue to see numerous benefits throughout the region, including vastly expanding trade and economic relationships, more robust people-to-people ties, surges in tourism, direct flights, cultural and academic exchanges, as well as better coordination on a range of other issues.  And the initiatives we discuss today have a clear goal: to make the lives of people across the Negev Forum countries more peaceful, more prosperous and vibrant.  And we believe that this effort – and we hope that this effort – will attract other countries as they see the benefits of greater cooperation.   

I want to thank the UAE Government for hosting us here in Abu Dhabi, and look forward to answering your questions.  But before we do that, I’d like now to turn to my colleague, our Ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Agencies in Rome, Cindy McCain.  Ambassador McCain.   

AMBASSADOR MCCAIN:  Thank you very much.  Good afternoon, all of you on the phone.  It’s my pleasure to be here today and to discuss the issues that we face and the things that have occurred as a result of that.  As was mentioned, I serve as the U.S. representative on the Food and Water Security Working Group, and I would like to talk a little bit more about the issues – this issue specifically.   

Food and water security are the most important global security issue of our time.  The situation has become worse as a result of Putin’s war in Ukraine, compounded with the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and regional conflicts.   

At the Negev Forum working groups, we had a vital opportunity to have meaningful discussions on food and water and security in a room of people who can get things done across the Middle East and North Africa regions.  We need a united global effort to save lives and to tackle the root of hunger.  We must invest in science, technology, and integration to create efficient and resilient food systems for the future. 

These themes are among the many that we discussed over the past few days at the Negev Forum working groups.  We looked to identify specific and concrete potential projects that the Negev Forum countries could seek to develop in the short and longer term in order to solve the food security crisis.  These discussions represent a start to the effort to help all of us play our part – not just in statements and at meetings, but in action, and with investment to create the future that we all want.  It is a future that all countries of this region want and deserve, where no one goes to bed hungry. 

Now I’d like to introduce the State Department Senior Official for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Liz Allen for some final comments. 

MS ALLEN:  Thank you, Ambassador McCain.  And it’s great to be with all of you today.  Thank you for joining us. 

I had the good fortune of serving as the senior U.S. official on the Educational and Coexistence Working Group over the past few days.  And as my colleague stated, the goal of our collective efforts in this Negev Forum with our partners was to build a new regional framework that has the potential to change the future of the Middle East and North Africa.  That’s our ongoing work. 

And I want to note today that we really had real, substantive discussions in our working group meetings.  It’s important to note that we had multiple sessions; we ate our meals together; we had a very constructive dialogue throughout these two days.  And we believe in my working group that perhaps nothing has the potential to positively influence this framework over the long term as much as the area of working with future generations, creating new integrated opportunities for youth.  These opportunities can grow people-to-people ties in the region and promote a stronger sense of coexistence. 

Through increased educational exchanges and cross-coordination, we earn long-term dividends towards a collective future of increased integration between the many countries in this region.  These kinds of activities also have a strong track record of creating jobs and positively benefiting our economies.  We’ve already seen some of these areas thrive since the Abraham Accords were signed years ago.  We’ve seen several signed memorandums of understanding between universities in Arab countries and Israel as well as opportunities for youth from different countries to engage with each other in cultural and sporting events, amongst others.   

So during these last two days we talked about opportunities to build on that very work in the areas of academic cooperation, cultural exchange, sports, and media.  And we are at the very beginning stages of this work.  That’s the important part.  This is a long-term dialogue where we’re committed to creating this regional framework.  And the events of the last two days was the beginning of the work; we are very excited to continue to do that work together and take it forward. 

And with that, we’re happy to take your questions. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, speakers.  We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call.   

Our first question is a pre-submitted question, and it comes from Youssef Yaagoubi from Morocco’s Hespress.  And Youssef asks:  “What are the outcomes of these working groups before the upcoming Negev Forum in Morocco?  And how can cooperation be enhanced in the area of education?”   

So let me ask Counselor Chollet to begin, and then maybe we can turn it over to our senior official, Liz Allen, to speak about the education piece. 

MR CHOLLET:  Sure, thanks for the question.  A couple thoughts.  First, at the first meeting of the working groups, we were charged with creating a work plan for the working groups.  And so that in and of itself is an outcome, to make sure that the working groups are going to be meeting on a regular basis throughout the year.  There will be a ministerial hopefully soon that our ministers will check our homework and ensure that we came up with tangible projects, but also set the agenda for the future. 

Also, what you all will be seeing shortly is a framework document that had been agreed to late last year that will be released as part of this working group session, which lays out in more detail the goals of the Negev Forum and also the components of the Negev Forum, including a commitment to have an annual ministerial; to have periodic working group meetings; to have a steering committee, which is going to be chaired by a rotating president of the – presidency of the Negev Forum; and outlining the work, briefly, of the six working groups.  So that’s something you’ll be seeing shortly, which will provide some more detail on the forum itself.   

But I can speak very quickly to the – on the Regional Security Working Group, which I was a co-chair of with Bahrain.  We discussed broadly issues related to capacity-building, related to information sharing, in an effort to augment the already very important work that is happening between our militaries in the region, in which the United States Central Command plays such a pivotal role.  And we came up with several concrete projects that we believe have tremendous potential to enhance capacity building and information sharing.  And what we’ll be doing in the coming weeks and months is developing those projects further and hopefully implementing all of them.  And then we’ve also outlined several further areas that are going to require study that we believe are promising.  We don’t quite have projects yet, but that’s what the next working group session will be, and we – our working groups have committed to meet either in person or virtually at least three times a year. 

So what we’re trying to do here is build the muscle tissue of our cooperation, and we were off to a very good start, we believe, in the last two days.  Liz? 

MS ALLEN:  Sure.  So this is Liz Allen.  Our trajectory for enhancing cooperation in the area of education largely mirrors how Derek just talked about other issues, which is to say we explored broad areas in the working group here over the last two days, and then countries will go back and confer with their colleagues and capitals and continue to meet over the coming weeks to see what models are scalable, what models are feasible.   

And in the area of education, we discussed obviously building on educational exchanges, whether those be study abroad opportunities or research collaboration opportunities or academic partnership opportunities.  Those things were all on the table, as well as the discussion about what age groups are most appropriate for areas of cooperation.  We have existing programs for high-school-age students, for university students, and for post-university students.  And so all of those things were discussed. 

What I would say today is that those of us in the Education and Coexistence Working Group, from all six countries in the room, really felt the sense of the moment such that education is the foundation upon which growth in every other area is built.  So we know that cooperation in the area of education is going to be fundamental to continuing to build this regional framework together.  

MODERATOR:  Great, thank you.  Let’s do another pre-submitted question because, again, we did get many from our journalists over on the Arabic line.  So we’ll go to a question from Faares Ahmed from Egypt’s Al Bawaba News.  And Faares asks:  “What projects have been implemented or are working on implementation from the previous round or now in the Negev Forum, especially those focused on food security?”  Let me turn that over to Ambassador Cindy McCain to address that one.   

AMBASSADOR MCCAIN:  Well, Faares, I hope you can hear me, and I appreciate the question.  What we began in these past few days was a dialogue about cooperation and about the need to remind the world that food and water security is the most important issue. So the things that we discussed were absolutely imperative in terms of being able to make sure that the region prospers and continues in an upward direction.  Water and food security are very difficult issues, and what we talked about was not only the difficulty that we are going to have in facing climate change as a result of this as well, but also in how we deal with it.  

So I think the most important element that I can say to all of you on the phone is that we were in the room talking, talking about specific issues that people die from unless you deal with it.  So I was very happy to be a part of this, and I think the rest of the people in the room were the same. Most importantly, let me remind you: food and water security are the most important, as we have said, and I will continue to preach in the things that I do, but we have to consider climate change as an absolute key element in all of this.  So whenever things are decided, whatever projects are eventually decided on, climate has to be a part of it.  

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We’ll now go to a question from our live queue, and this question goes to Mike Wagenheim from i24 News.  Operator, please open the line.   

OPERATOR:  The line is open.  Please, go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Thanks so much for taking the time to do this briefing today.  The Jordanians aren’t present at the Negev Forum.  Obviously they want to take into account the rights of the Palestinians.  Trying to find out how you are incorporating Jordanian and Palestinian priorities within the context of these conversations and how they can be incorporated into upcoming projects, upcoming initiatives even if they’re not present within these discussions, within these working groups. 

MR CHOLLET:  Thank you for the question.  It’s Derek Chollet here.  We believe that the Negev Forum should be an open forum, meaning we are keen to have others become involved in it.  And throughout this process since the ministerial meeting, the summit meeting last March, we have been in near-constant contact with countries we believe may be interested and would benefit from involvement in the Negev Forum.  It’s of course up to individual countries decide whether or not they want to attend, and we the United States are fully supportive of the Palestinians joining, of the Jordanians joining, of course, and others.  

We are hoping – and we believe that we’ve achieved in this first meeting of the working groups – that the proof is in the pudding, so to speak, that we – by coming up with tangible outcomes, by having such productive meetings, such positive meetings, as we’ve had over the last few days, that countries that are not yet part of the Negev Forum that we believe would benefit from that will be incentivized to join.   

Again, that’s going to be their decision to make and I’m not going to speak for any other country, but we the United States are determined to be as transparent as we can be and as encouraging as we can be to the countries that we believe would benefit from joining, have the opportunity to join.  There’s openness with our partners for that to happen, by the way, as well, and we – in the coming days now coming out of this working group meeting we will ensure that we are backbriefing those who were not here about what we talked about and what was achieved in the hopes that they may join in the future.  

MODERATOR:  Great, thank you, sir.  Our next question is another pre-submitted question from Oussama Aamari from Morocco World News.  And Oussama asks:  “What sort of social impact do you think the establishment of relations with Israel and the Arab world have had?”  So let me ask Liz Allen to start that, and then maybe Ambassador McCain, if you have anything to add as well on that topic.   

MS ALLEN:  Great, thanks so much for the question, Oussama.  Well, look, we continue to see numerous benefits throughout the Middle East and North Africa following the signing of the Abraham Accords and the normalization agreements from more than two years ago.  This includes vastly expanding trade and economic relationships, more robust people-to-people ties that I’ve spoken of, things like surges in tourism, direct airline flights, cultural research and academic exchanges, and better coordination on a range of issues that you’re hearing us talk about today.  And no doubt these initiatives have helped make the lives of people across these countries more peaceful, more prosperous, more vibrant, and more integrated.   

And I think this is a moment to also convey that the United States has long worked with the countries in the Negev Forum, and countries across the Middle East and North Africa, on a variety of programs designed to increase inclusion, to create economic opportunity, to provide opportunities for young people in particular, all in the name of having a social impact.  So whether it’s women’s entrepreneurship, whether it’s sports diplomacy and sports programming, whether it’s English language teaching, these are programs that are happening throughout the region.  We are looking for ways to scale them, to build on them, to model them now cooperatively amongst the six Negev Forum countries; and to the previous questioner’s point, looking for maximal participation from as many people as want to participate.   

I can say that in the Education and Coexistence Working Group meetings, every one of the countries talked about having Palestinian participants in the programs that we were contemplating.  Certainly in our area, whether it is educational exchanges or, for example, sports programs or tournaments, those types of programs lend themselves to having participants from across the region.  Even as they may be considering formally joining the Negev Forum, we are certainly open to, encouraging, and hoping for broader participation, including from the Palestinians, which was certainly discussed today and yesterday.   

AMBASSADOR MCCAIN:  So if I can build on that from a food and agriculture and water perspective, cooperation is key.  Best practices is key in all this.  Cooperation with FAO, Food and Agriculture Organization, or with IFAD, our Rome-based agencies, is most important because many of the opportunities and the ability to perhaps begin these projects can be thoroughly moved forward by the use and the coordination of these two specific agencies.   

Most of all, we need to talk about science and technology – as I mentioned, sharing best practices and tailoring to specific needs.  Each country has a specific need with regards to the kind of land, the kind of – how much is arid, how much is not arid, access to water, et cetera.  All those things can be determined and can also be written into whatever agreements come about, but the key element in this is cooperation.  And I really felt like that this was a large part of what took place today was a cooperation and a discussion on what we can do and what we should do as a region.  

MODERATOR:  Great.  Thank you.  We have time for just a few more questions.  Let me go back to the live queue, and we’ll go to Michel Ghandour from the Middle East Broadcasting Network.  Operator, please open the line.  

OPERATOR:  Your line is open.  Please go ahead.  

QUESTION:  Hi, a report in Israel said that Washington is considering inviting to the Morocco second Negev Forum summit of foreign ministers – a foreign minister of an unnamed Muslim, African country that is not member of the forum.  Is that accurate and can you say anything about the next summit?  

MR CHOLLET:  Sure.  It’s Derek Chollet here.  We have no announcements about any future members.  I just want to underscore again we are very hopeful that other countries, the Palestinians will join the Negev Forum in the future.  We believe there are real benefits to many countries in the region, and that’s why we’re intent on ensuring that we get the word out as best we can on what’s been achieved here and the road ahead.  But we have no new announcements to make at this moment about any future participants.   

MODERATOR:  Great.  Thank you, sir.  We’ll go to another question from the live queue, and the next question comes from Jared Szuba from Al Monitor.  Operator, please open the line.  

OPERATOR:  Your line is open.  Please go ahead.   

QUESTION:  Hi, all just a quick follow-up on the regional security working group.  It was mentioned that there were several concrete projects that were conceptualized during this past round of meetings.  I’m just wondering if you could explain these sort of – these concept projects in any further depth?  Thanks.   

MR CHOLLET:  Sure.  It’s Derek Chollet here.  I don’t want to get in too much specificity here, but I can speak with maybe a little more granularity.  Particularly on the capacity building side, we think that there is real room to create venues which the Negev Forum countries can come together to talk about threat perception, to talk about ways we can cooperate on things like border security, perhaps issues related to security and climate change, disaster preparedness, ways that we could perhaps do tabletop exercises, also showing kind of best practices or some of the capabilities that we have.   

So the United States will be looking forward to hosting Negev Forum members in the U.S. in the coming months to see some of the capabilities we have when it comes to information sharing, when it comes to addressing security risks and threats.  So there’s a whole host of projects – again, we can – as those come into greater focus, we’re – we can share those with you in greater detail.  But I’m confident that coming out of this meeting we’ve accomplished our bottom-line objective was to – which was to have some tangible outcomes, to have more than just statements and a good meeting and a good meal, but to actually come up with some ideas that, when implemented, are going to make people’s lives better and safer.  

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We have time for one final question.  Apologies to all of the many callers that are on hold trying to ask a question on the live queue and also to the many journalists who submitted pre-submitted questions.  The final question – what I would like to do is combine two pre-submitted questions we had because they’re similar but perhaps from a different angle.   

And it’s – the first part of the question comes from Abd Elraouf Arnaout from the Palestinian media outlet Al-Ayyam Daily.  And Abd Elraouf asks:  “What are you expectations for any peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians in light of the Arab countries normalizing relations of Israel?”  And then perhaps another piece of that question or that question a different way – from Monalisa Freiha from Lebanon’s Annahar Newspaper – and Monalisa asks:  “Did the recent escalation that we’ve seen in the region effect your discussions with Israel and those countries in the forum?”  Over to you, speakers.   

MR CHOLLET:  Well, sure – it’s Derek Chollet here – I can take a crack at those.  First, when it comes to the Palestinians, we have been very clear in the Biden administration while – that while we fully support and are working tirelessly to support the normalization of relations between Arab- and Muslim-majority countries in Israel – including through the implementation of the Abraham Accords and the creation and implementation of the Negev Forum – we do not see this as a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace.  And Secretary Blinken made this very clear in March of last year at the Negev Summit, where he said that we have to be very clear that these regional peace agreements aren’t a substitute and that, if anything, normalization should be leveraged to advance progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track and to improve the lives of Palestinians.   

And Secretary Blinken last March did note how countries involved in the Abraham Accords and normalization, as well as all countries with longstanding diplomatic relations with Israel, can support the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people in concrete ways and have a positive impact on the daily lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  And so this is an ongoing conversation.  It supports our goal of Palestinians and Israelis enjoying equal measures of freedom and security and prosperity while creating the conditions for a negotiated two-state solution.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much, sir.  And now, Counselor Chollet, why don’t I turn it back over to you for any closing remarks you might have?  

MR CHOLLET:  Well, again, I just want to thank everyone for your time this afternoon.  I really apologize that we can only get to a very small fraction of your very good questions, but I really appreciate your interest in the Negev Forum process.  And I just invite you to stay tuned in the future because we think that there’s going to be a lot of interesting things to come.   

MODERATOR:  And that concludes today’s call.  I would like to thank Counselor Derek Chollet, Ambassador Cindy McCain, and Senior Official Liz Allen for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating.  If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at 

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U.S. Department of State

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