'Taboos are breaking; something amazing is happening here'

Netanyahu in Warsaw: For Arab leaders, Iran threat more urgent than Palestinians

At end of summit, PM says 4 Arab foreign ministers spoke out to back Israel’s right to defend itself against Iranian aggression; Arab states ‘half open’ to warmer ties with Israel

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, arrives for a session at the conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, arrives for a session at the conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW, Poland — Four Arab foreign ministers who spoke at the Warsaw Middle East summit affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself against Iranian aggression, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday.

Speaking to reporters shortly after he left the event, most of which was closed to the press, the prime minister hailed the very fact that 10 Arab foreign ministers agreed to share a conference stage with an Israeli leader as the “breaking of a taboo.”

“Four out of five Arab foreign ministers who addressed the conference [on Thursday] spoke strongly and clearly against Iran, saying exactly what I’ve been saying for years,” Netanyahu said. “They were as clear as possible about the issue, and Israel’s right to defend itself against Iranian aggression.”

Netanyahu did not specify which four Arab foreign ministers spoke out.

Asked when and how further Arab states would fully normalize relations with Israel, which has peace treaties only with Jordan and Egypt, Netanyahu replied that what happened in Warsaw over the last 24 hours shows that they are already “half-open.”

“Here you have Arab foreign ministers, who say that Israelis have the right to defense themselves, and don’t say it in secret but on a stage with 60 other countries present,” he said.

“It was a very important meeting and I don’t think we exaggerate its importance,” he added. “There is great importance in that they sit in one room, full of cameras” to discuss the Middle East, he said, noting that it was clear to the Arab representatives that, even though most of the conference proceedings were held behind closed doors, it would become public knowledge that they sat together with the Israeli prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) greets Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah at the sidelines of a regional conference on the Middle East in Warsaw, February 13, 2018 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The Palestinian issue came up during the conference, Netanyahu said, but added that the Arab officials preferred to focus their remarks on Iran.

“Once the Palestinian issue took center stage. Now they say that first and foremost the Iranian issue needs to be dealt with,” Netanyahu said. In fact, the Arab officials who addressed the summit all agreed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot be achieved as long as the Iranian problem is not addressed, he said.

Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud with Channel 13’s Barak Ravid, February 2019 (Twitter screenshot)

In an unprecedented interview with Israeli television on Wednesday night, the former senior Saudi official, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, said Netanyahu was deceiving the Israeli public when claiming that Israeli ties with the wider Arab world can be warmed without the Palestinian issue being solved. On the sidelines of the conference on Thursday, meanwhile, Bahrain’s foreign minister told The Times of Israel that Israel-Bahrain relations would be established “eventually.”

On Wednesday here, Netanyahu met with Oman’s foreign minister. At the opening session of the conference on Thursday he was seated next to the foreign minister of Yemen, and interacted briefly with him.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, attends the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Netanyahu himself delivered remarks at the opening ceremony at Warsaw’s historic Royal Castle on Wednesday evening. The fact that the Arab delegates did not walk out symbolized “the breaking of a taboo,” the prime minister said.

Secret meetings between Israeli leaders and Arab have been going on for years, he told reporters in a briefing at the city’s new Jewish museum, where earlier in the day he laid a wreath at a monument honoring the victims of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

United States Vice President Mike Pence with his wife Karen, Prime Minister of Poland Mateusz Morawiecki with his wife Iwona and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara, from left, stand at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes during a wreath laying ceremony in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019. (Michael Sohn/AP)

“Today, 60 foreign minister were at the conference, and they all knew what this conference was about,” he said. “And this wasn’t a conference about decertification. There is a change here. It expressed itself in things that were said, and things that will be done. This is not happening by chance. Rather, it’s the result of a clear policy that I have been leading for years.”

Officials from 60 countries attended the so-called Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East, including foreign ministers and deputy foreign ministers from Oman, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait and Jordan.

Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, US Vice President Mike Pence, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pose for a family photo at the conference on Peace and Security in the Middle east in Warsaw, on February 13, 2019. (Janek SKARZYNSKI/AFP)

“They all spoke about Iran. They mentioned the Palestinian issue, saying it needs to be solved, but also said that it won’t be solved as long as Iranian aggression continues,” Netanyahu said.

“I don’t want to call it the ‘New Middle East.’ But something amazing is happening here,” he said.

During the briefing, Netanyahu also addressed other topics, including the US administration’s much anticipated peace plan.

He said that senior adviser to US President Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, said that he would not reveal the plan before Israel’s April 9 elections, and that Kushner rejects the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as a blueprint for an Israel-Palestinian peace accord.

White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner attends a conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

“He said the Arab Peace Initiative was important at the time, but is no longer appropriate for today [because] reality has changed,” Netanyahu said of Kushner’s response.

Regarding the April Knesset elections, Netanyahu reiterated that he considers Benny Gantz, his former army chief and currently his main political rival, to be a political leftist, despite the fact that Gantz’s Israel Resilience party ticket includes several known hawks, including two men (Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel) who used to work for Netanyahu.

“The elections are far from being decided. There is close fight, it’s not a done deal,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu refused to provide a substantive answer to The Times of Israel’s questions about last year’s controversial joint Israeli-Polish declaration on Poland’s role in the Holocaust, merely saying that the issue came up during his meeting earlier on Thursday with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

Leading Israeli historians harshly criticized the joint statement, arguing it inaccurately adopts the Polish narrative of the Holocaust, overstating Polish efforts to rescue Jews and understating anti-Jewish atrocities committed by Poles.

Last July, Netanyahu said he had taken note of the criticism and would address it at a later time, but he has not done so.

“Since then I heard that some of the historians have changed their mind,” he said Thursday, refusing to elaborate.

Asked about the Polish law that prohibits accusing the Polish nation of complicity in Holocaust crimes, Netanyahu replied: “Poles cooperated with the Nazis and I don’t know one person who was sued for saying that.”

The law initially made it a criminal offense, punishable by prison, to accuse the Polish nation of Holocaust complicity. After the joint declaration, Poland amended the law, removing the criminal sanctions, though it is still illegal to make such claims.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect Netanyahu’s comments on Poland and the Holocaust according to a recording of the briefing provided by the Prime Minister’s Office. 

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