Tuesday , July 5 2022

Blinken to Press Mideast Allies for Stronger Support for Ukraine

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

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

“This is very much a part of the conversation we’ve had today, and I’ll be having throughout the course of my visit here, including with our partners,” Mr. Blinken said Sunday in Jerusalem during a news conference with Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid.

“We will be talking throughout about various means of support that Israel and other countries can give to Ukraine,” he said. “That will be a conversation that’s ongoing throughout this trip.”

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

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

Israel buys about $1 billion in Russian coal, wheat, diamonds and other goods annually, and in 2020 sent about $718 million in agricultural products to Russia, according to the Observatory of Economic Opportunity at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Israel also coordinates with Russia to prevent coming into direct but unintentional military conflict in neighboring Syria, where Iranian soldiers or their proxy fighters seek to threaten the Jewish state.

Mr. Lapid called relations between the United States and Israel “unbreakable” 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. While Israel has not imposed sanctions against Russia, it is working to prevent Moscow from evading the economic penalties, Mr. Blinken said.

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

In trying to maintain relations with Russia against the backdrop of war, Israel is not alone in the Middle East.

Russia exports even more goods to Morocco than to Israel, amounting to about $1.35 billion in coal, petroleum and chemicals in 2020. Morocco, which will attend the summit meeting celebrating the so-called Abraham Accords with Israel on Sunday and Monday, has tried to remain impartial since the invasion and maintains it wants to help mediate the crisis by keeping open communication with both Russia and Ukraine.

Morocco also wants to keep Russia from directly arming the Polisario Front, the pro-independence group in the Western Sahara.

“Morocco’s relations with Russia are very old and date back to several centuries back,” Ahmed Faouzi, formerly a high-ranking Moroccan diplomat, said in an interview. He noted “good relations” with Ukraine as well and defended Morocco’s neutrality in the war as “positive.”

“The idea is to not aggravate the situation,” Mr. Faouzi said. “It is necessary for other countries to find common grounds. Full-fledged war benefits nobody.”

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 with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, which refused late last month to denounce Russia’s invasion by abstaining from an American-backed resolution at the United Nations Security Council.

The Persian Gulf nation also has sidestepped U.S. requests to increase oil production for European markets that had relied on Russian energy. The Emirates buys military weapons from Moscow and has given haven to Russian oligarchs and others closely linked to Mr. Putin who have relocated to Dubai to escape the international sanctions’ bite.

The disconnect over Russia represents the latest sign of frayed relations between Washington and the Emirates that began cooling when President Biden made clear that the Middle East would not be a top foreign policy priority for his administration. It has sought instead to focus on the United States’ complex relations with China and, more recently, on deterring Russia.

This month the Emirati ambassador to Washington described a “stress test” underway between the U.A.E. and the United States, caused in part by the Biden administration’s renewed negotiations for a nuclear deal with Iran and by a dispute over a $23 billion arms sale that would have sent advanced American warplanes to the U.A.E. The ambassador, Yousef al-Otaiba, described “strong days where the relationship is very healthy, and days where the relationship is under question.”

Bahrain, one of the original signatories of the Abraham Accords, has also sought to walk a line between Russia and Ukraine. The energy-rich kingdom voted in favor of the Security Council resolution that denounced the invasion. But it is also continuing to talk to Russia in hopes of finding a way out of the war, including in a phone call between Mr. Putin and King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa two weeks ago.

An analysis published this month by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted that Russia’s invasion could have broad economic impacts on the region, from demands to export more oil and gas to Europe, to possible shortages on wheat and other products from Ukraine. It concluded that much of the Middle East “may be caught in the middle as the conflict in Ukraine unfolds.”

“Further fallout could increase instability in the region and beyond,” the analysis concluded. “Amid broad concerns about Washington decreasing its focus on the Middle East, the U.S. response to the Ukraine crisis could shape perceptions about American interests in the region.”

In Jerusalem, Mr. Blinken acknowledged rising bread prices in the Middle East, caused by the wheat shortages, in describing the war’s fallout as “hitting the most vulnerable people the hardest.”

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

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


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