Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday hailed as a breakthrough a conference in Warsaw where he is standing side-by-side with Arab powers to confront Iran, hoping their common front can pave the way to greater normalisation of relations.
The United States initiated the two-day meeting in the Polish capital as it seeks to squeeze Iran, but the talks have drawn little interest from European powers which are deeply suspicious of President Donald Trump’s intentions.
But Netanyahu voiced delight after an opening dinner Wednesday night at Warsaw’s Royal Castle where he spoke in the same room as top officials of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — none of which recognise the Jewish state.
“In a room of some 60 foreign ministers representative of dozens of governments, an Israeli prime minister and the foreign ministers of the leading Arab countries stood together and spoke with unusual force, clarity and unity against the common threat of the Iranian regime,” Netanyahu told reporters as he arrived for Thursday’s main session at a football stadium.
“I think this marks a change and important understanding of what threatens our future, what we need to do to secure it, and the possibility that cooperation will extend beyond security in every realm of life,” he said.
Netanyahu also met one-on-one with Oman’s foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, after paying a rare visit to the sultanate last year.
Israel only has diplomatic relations with two Arab countries, neighbouring Egypt and Jordan. But Gulf Arab leaders — especially Saudi Arabia’s powerful, US-allied crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman — have increasingly put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the back burner as they instead push to contain historic rival Iran.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, is taking part in the Warsaw conference where he will speak behind closed doors on the contours of a US peace proposal to be presented after Israeli elections in April.
The Palestinian government is not attending and has called the conference an “American conspiracy”. It is refusing US mediation after Trump in 2017 recognised bitterly contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
– Low interest elsewhere –
Most European countries sent low-level representatives to Warsaw as they still support a deal negotiated under former president Barack Obama that constrained Iran’s nuclear programme in return for promises of sanctions relief.
Trump called the deal “terrible” and has slapped sweeping sanctions back on Iran, seeking to curb the Shiite power’s influence in regional hotspots Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
The European Union has defied Trump by setting up a financial tool for European firms to skirt US sanctions and keep doing business in Iran, the Middle East’s second most populous country.
Even host Poland — eager to please the United States as it worries about a resurgent Russia — has said that it backs the nuclear accord, with which UN inspectors say Iran is complying.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has managed to divert the spotlight by holding a simultaneous summit in the resort of Sochi with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and their Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the future of war-battered Syria.
Also casting a cloud over the Warsaw talks, a suicide car bombing in southeastern Iran on Wednesday killed 27 troops of the elite Revolutionary Guards who were returning from patrol, according to the force.
Iran quickly linked the attack to the conference in Warsaw, where supporters of the formerly armed opposition rallied in the streets on Thursday.
Dubbing the meeting in Poland the “WarsawCircus”, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the attack’s timing was “no coincidence” and called the conference “dead on arrival”.
An extremist group from the Sunni Muslim minority claimed responsibility for the attack in the volatile southeastern Baluchistan region.
The latest violence — and the conference — come just as the clerical regime was celebrating 40 years since the Islamic revolution that overthrew the pro-US shah.
– Talks on Syria, Yemen –
US Vice President Mike Pence is also set to address the conference, which the United States and Poland say will be followed up by working groups on key issues.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opened by insisting that the United States will remain committed to Syria, despite Trump’s abrupt order in December to pull out all 2,000 US troops.
Pompeo also hailed the presence of Arab and Israeli leaders all “in the same room, sharing a meal and exchanging views”.
“They all came together for a single reason — to discuss the real threats to our respective peoples emanating from the Middle East,” Pompeo said.
The only major European power to send a top official was Britain, although Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was primarily interested in seeking progress in ending the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.