WARSAW, Poland — US Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday hailed the symbolic importance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “breaking bread” with Arab leaders at a Mideast conference in Warsaw, saying he hoped it heralded further cooperation to come.
The two-day conference, which was originally called with a focus on countering Iran but now carries the toned-down and vague goal of seeking stability in the Middle East, opened with a dinner at the Royal Castle in Warsaw’s old town.
“Tonight I believe we are beginning a new era, with Prime Minister Netanyahu from the State of Israel, with leaders from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, all breaking bread together, and later in this conference sharing honest perspectives on the challenges facing the area,” Pence said, addressing the guests.
“Poland and the US welcome this outward symbol of this gathering, a symbol of cooperation and a hopeful sign of a brighter future that awaits nations across the Middle East,” Pence said.
“Let us recognize that we are stronger together than we would ever be apart,” he said.
The summit appears to be the first time an Israeli leader and senior Arab officials were attending an international conference centered on the Middle East since the Madrid peace conference in 1991, which set the stage for the landmark Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
Netanyahu and the Arab officials also shared a stage during a group photo scheduled for meeting participants.
Palestinians have been heavily critical of the conference, with officials describing it as an effort by the US to advance anti-Palestinian positions.
Netanyahu expressed sentiments similar to Pence’s when he met earlier in the day with Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, telling him that the recent rapprochement between the two countries — including Netanyahu’s October 2018 visit to Muscat — was “changing the world.”
“It’s paving the way for many others to do what you said — not to be stuck in the past but to seize the future,” he said.
Netanyahu said many Arab countries were following Oman’s lead in moving toward more open interaction with Israel, “including at this conference.”
“I want to thank you for this forward-looking, positive policy that can lead to peace and prosperity for all,” he said.
“Indeed, this is an an important, new vision for the future,” the Omani foreign minister responded in English. “People in the Middle East have suffered a lot, because they have [been stuck in] the past. This is a new era for the future, and for prosperity for all the nations.”
Wednesday’s meeting took place at the Warsaw Intercontinental hotel, where Netanyahu’s delegation is staying.
The prime minister’s surprising visit to Oman was the first time an Israeli leader publicly visited the Gulf state since 1996.
Since then, Omani leaders have continued to advocate for the Arab world to normalize its relations with Israel.
Two days after Netanyahu’s trip to Muscat, which was celebrated on the front pages of several Omani newspapers, bin Alawi suggested at a conference in Bahrain that the time had come for Israel to be treated like any other state in the region. Remarkably, his colleagues from Manama and Riyadh did not disagree, even expressing tacit support for Oman’s efforts to help advance the peace process.
However, in a damper on Netanyahu’s efforts, an Israeli TV station broadcast an unprecedented interview Wednesday with a senior Saudi prince who accused the prime minister of deceiving the Israeli public by claiming that Israeli ties with the wider Arab world could be warmed without the Palestinian issue being resolved.
“Israeli public opinion should not be deceived into believing that the Palestinian issue is a dead issue,” Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud told Channel 13 news in a lengthy interview in London.
“From the Israeli point of view, Mr. Netanyahu would like us to have a relationship, and then we can fix the Palestinian issue. From the Saudi point of view, it’s the other way around,” said the former Saudi intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to the US and UK.
Representatives of some 60 nations are set to attend the conference in Warsaw, including the foreign ministers of ten Arab countries.
The conference was originally touted by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as focusing on Iran’s regional actions, but organizers have since dialed down the emphasis on Tehran. In a joint op-ed published Wednesday morning on CNN’s website, Pompeo and Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz wrote that the summit would deal mainly with the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other security-related regional matters.
Pompeo and Czaputowicz only mentioned Iran indirectly, carefully avoiding the impression that the summit’s focus is an effort to isolate the Islamic Republic.
Netanyahu, for his part, has said the conference will not focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, since Pompeo and Pence do not deal with the administration’s much-anticipated peace proposal. Rather, Netanyahu told reporters Tuesday evening, the conference would have a clear emphasis on efforts to thwart Iranian aggression.