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JERUSALEM: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and four top Arab diplomats arrived Sunday in southern Israel for a “historic” meeting marking a thawing of relations between the Jewish state and several regional neighbours.

The gathering with officials from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco – which in 2020 normalised ties with the Jewish state – and Egypt comes amid rising regional concerns over a deal Washington could soon reach with Iran to restore a 2015 nuclear agreement.

With the day of talks scheduled for Monday in the Sde Boker kibbutz, deep in Israel’s Negev desert, Israel aims to mark the success of the US-propelled “Abraham Accords” that saw the normalisation deals.

But the gathering’s opening was marred by a shooting attack in northern Israel that left two police officers dead and was claimed by the Islamic State group, a rare claim of an attack inside Israel.

“All the foreign ministers condemned the attack, sent their condolences to the families of the victims and wished a speedy recovery to the wounded,” Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said on Twitter.

The meeting also takes place as the United States and European allies express quiet frustration that Middle East countries generally have not shown strong support for efforts to support Ukraine following Russia’s invasion or distanced themselves from Moscow.

But Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas rebuffed any pressure to criticise Russia, instead castigating the West for “double standards” that he said penalised Moscow while ignoring Israel’s “crimes” against the Palestinians.

“The current events in Europe have shown blatant double standards,” he told Blinken on Sunday.

US top diplomat in Israel for landmark Arab talks

“Despite the crimes of the Israeli occupation that amounted to ethnic cleansing and racial discrimination… we find no one who is holding Israel responsible for behaving as a state above the law,” he said.

Iran nuclear deal

The Iran nuclear deal was high on the agenda in meetings Blinken held Sunday with Lapid, Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Speaking alongside Lapid, Blinken said the US believes restoring the agreement is “the best way to put Iran’s (nuclear) programme back in the box that it was in but has escaped” after the US withdrew from the deal under former president Donald Trump in 2018.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief said at the weekend that a deal with Iran to restore the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, could be reached “in a matter of days”.

Blinken stressed that “when it comes to the most important element, we see eye-to-eye” with Israel.

“We are both committed, both determined, that Iran will never acquire a nuclear weapon.”

Lapid said the two sides “have disagreements” about the deal, whose restoration is in the final stages of negotiation in Vienna after almost a year of talks.

But “open and honest dialogue is part of the strength of our friendship,” Lapid said.

“At the same time, Israel will do anything we believe is needed to stop the Iranian nuclear programme,” he added.

Terrorist group designation

Bennett, after his meeting with Blinken, said Israel was specifically concerned that the United States could meet one of Iran’s reported demands – to remove its designation of the country’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation.”

Speaking in Doha on Sunday, Robert Malley, the principal US negotiator for the Iran nuclear talks, played down that issue, noting that in any agreement the IRGC would remain under heavy US economic sanctions.

In his meetings with both sides on Sunday, Blinken also discussed strategies to ensure calm this year during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Christian Easter celebrations and the Jewish Passover holiday, which overlap.

Tensions in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital, partly fuelled an 11-day conflict last May with Hamas who control the Gaza Strip.

Blinken stressed the need to “prevent actions on all sides that could raise tensions, including (Jewish) settlement expansion” in occupied Palestinian territories, comments marking a rare in-person condemnation of Israeli efforts to expand the Jewish settler population.

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