Blinken to press Middle Eastern allies for more support for Ukraine

JERUSALEM – When he joins a summit focused on Middle East unity on Sunday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will ask some of the region’s top diplomats to rally behind another cause: to help Ukraine repel the invasion Russian.

The hastily organized summit meeting in the Negev desert was heralded as a historic event, designed to showcase the growing diplomatic and economic ties between some Arab states and Israel that Blinken on Sunday called “unthinkable just a few years ago.” But above all in his mind was the modest support for Ukraine among the countries in the region that also have ties to Russia.

“This is an important part of the conversation we had today, and I will have throughout the course of my visit here, including with our partners,” said Mr. Blinken on Sunday in Jerusalem during a press conference with the Israeli foreign minister. Yair Lapid.

“We will talk about various means of support that Israel and other countries can give Ukraine,” he said. “This is going to be a conversation that’s going on on this trip.”

Mr. Blinken commended Israel’s humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including assisting refugees and sending a field hospital to the conflict zone. Blinken also noted Israel’s role in trying to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin – one of the few countries still able to do so – to end the crisis even as it condemned the invasion.

But so far, Israel has not sent arms to Ukraine, nor has it joined a broad coalition of countries around the world, including the seven largest industrial nations, in imposing harsh economic sanctions designed to isolate Russia and hinder its footing. of war.

Israel buys about $ 1 billion in Russian coal, wheat, diamonds and other commodities annually and sent about $ 718 million in agricultural products to Russia in 2020, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Economic Opportunity Observatory. Israel also coordinates with Russia to avoid entering direct but unintended military conflict in neighboring Syria, where Iranian soldiers or their proxy fighters try to threaten the Jewish state.

Mr. Lapid called relations between the United States and Israel “indissoluble,” but noted disagreements over the Biden administration’s attempts to return to a nuclear deal with Iran and open a diplomatic consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem. Although Israel has not imposed sanctions on Russia, it is working to prevent Moscow from evading economic sanctions, Blinken said.

Mr. Lapid said: “I think there is no doubt in anyone’s mind, as our team was introducing it to the American delegation, that Israel is doing everything it can to be part of the effort.”

In an effort to maintain relations with Russia against the backdrop of war, Israel is not the only one in the Middle East.

Russia exports even more goods to Morocco than to Israel, worth about $ 1.35 billion in coal, oil and chemicals in 2020. Morocco, which will attend the summit celebrating the so-called Abraham Agreements on Sunday and Monday with Israel, he tried to remain impartial after the invasion and says he wants to help mediate the crisis by maintaining open communication with both Russia and Ukraine.

Morocco also wants to prevent Russia from directly arming the Polisario Front, the independence group of Western Sahara.

“Morocco’s relations with Russia are very old and go back several centuries,” Ahmed Faouzi, a former high-ranking Moroccan diplomat, said in an interview. He noted “good relations” also with Ukraine and defended Morocco’s neutrality in the war calling it “positive”.

“The idea is not to aggravate the situation,” said Mr. Faouzi. “It is necessary that other countries find common foundations. The war to all intents and purposes does not benefit anyone “.

Mr. Blinken will travel to Morocco later this week, his first visit there as Secretary of State. While there, he is also expected to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE, who at the end of last month refused to denounce the invasion of Russia by refraining from an American-backed resolution at the UN Security Council.

The Persian Gulf nation also avoided US requests to increase oil production for European markets that had relied on Russian energy. The Emirates buy military weapons from Moscow and have given refuge to Russian oligarchs and others closely related to Putin who have moved to Dubai to escape the bite of international sanctions.

The disconnect on Russia represents the latest sign of the frayed relations between Washington and the Emirates that began to cool as President Biden made it clear that the Middle East would not be a top foreign policy priority for his administration. Instead, he has tried to focus on the complex relations of the United States with China and, more recently, on deterring Russia.

This month, the Emirati ambassador to Washington described an underground “stress test” between the UAE and the US, caused in part by the Biden administration’s renewed negotiations for a nuclear deal with Iran and a dispute over a sale. $ 23 billion worth of weapons that would send advanced American warplanes to the UAE Ambassador, Yousef al-Otaiba, described “strong days when the relationship is very healthy and days when the relationship is up for debate. “.

Bahrain, one of the original signatories of the Abraham Accords, also tried to cross a border line between Russia and Ukraine. The energy-rich kingdom voted in favor of the Security Council resolution denouncing the invasion. But he also continues to talk to Russia in hopes of finding a way out of the war, including a phone call between Putin and King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa two weeks ago.

An analysis published this month by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that the invasion of Russia could have large economic impacts on the region, from the demand to export more oil and gas to Europe, to possible shortages of wheat and other products from the country. Ukraine. He concluded that much of the Middle East “may be in the middle as the conflict in Ukraine develops.”

“Further spillovers could increase instability in the region and beyond,” the analysis concluded. “Amid widespread concerns over Washington’s diminishing focus on the Middle East, the US response to the Ukrainian crisis could shape perceptions of American interests in the region.”

In Jerusalem, Mr. Blinken acknowledged the rise in Middle East bread prices caused by wheat shortages, describing the aftermath of the war as “hitting the most vulnerable hardest”.

He said his trips this week, including to Algiers, Algeria and Ramallah in the West Bank, would seek to “alleviate some of the burden this is placing on people, including throughout the Middle East.”

Patrick Kingsley contributed reports from Sde Boker, Israel, and Aida Alami from Paris.