Scoop: Somalia and Comoros agree to attend Negev Forum meeting

Somalia and Comoros agreed to send senior officials as observers to a ministerial meeting of the Negev Forum, a group that includes the U.S., Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, two Israeli officials tell Axios.

Why it matters: The two Muslim-majority countries, which are also members of the Arab League, don’t have formal diplomatic relations with Israel.

Officials from both countries have been conducting quiet talks with Israel for years and have recently visited Israel secretly, the Israeli officials said.

Attending the meeting could be a modest, yet significant, step forward in the normalization process between Israel and the Arab world.
Catch up quick: The Negev Forum was established in March 2022 in an unprecedented meeting in Israel attended by Secretary of State Tony Blinken and the foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

The idea was that the forum would be a platform for multilateral cooperation in the region in the fields of health, economy, climate change, water and security.

State of play: A second ministerial meeting of the Negev Forum was originally scheduled for March, but it’s been postponed several times, with Arab members expressing concerns about publicly engaging with the right-wing Israeli government and the “negative conditions” around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It’s now expected to take place after the summer.

Behind the scenes: Before the most recent postponement, Israel proposed that Somalia and Comoros attend the meeting as observers and both of the countries accepted, the Israeli officials said.

Briefing reporters on Sunday, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said that “two or three countries that Israel doesn’t have diplomatic relations with were supposed to attend the meeting.”

He added that Israel still believes “they will attend the meeting in the future and it will be a step toward normalization with them.”
The Somali Embassy in Washington and the Comoros mission to the UN did not respond to requests for comment.

The big picture: Cohen in a call Tuesday briefed Blinken on the progress in the talks Israel has had with Arab and Muslim-majority countries with whom it doesn’t have diplomatic relations, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Cohen told Blinken that in order to keep the momentum going, a date must be set for the Negev Forum ministerial meeting so that representatives from these countries could attend, the statement added.