No love in Warsaw: 10 things to know for February 14
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No love in Warsaw: 10 things to know for February 14

Netanyahu’s bid to show the Gulf rallying behind him against Iran seems to have gone a little awry, with translation blunders, harsh words from a secret ‘ally’ and more

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

1. Fog of war: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed to Poland this week with the not so subtle mission of meeting with senior officials from the Arab countries that agreed to join a vaguely defined summit called by the US.

  • How vaguely defined? While Netanyahu (and Iran) have continued to claim that the meeting is aimed at stopping Iran, organizers didn’t even mention the country in an opening statement, while Middle East peace, which Netanyahu insisted was just a tiny part of it, was on the official agenda.
  • Netanyahu’s gambit of  telling reporters as he headed to the summit that the countries were gathering against Iran backfired spectacularly, when his office translated a word that could both mean war and the less confrontational “combating,” as the former.
  • ToI’s Raphael Ahren writes that in the wake of the tweet and the translated comments sent to journalists, several senior officials “wondered whether Netanyahu had just openly called for open war with Iran.”
  • Among them are Iran’s foreign minister Moahmmed Javad Zarif.
  • Aside from a call for war, even the mention of Iran was seen as poor form.
  • “Mr. Netanyahu clearly did not get the memo that Iran was supposed to be discussed obliquely,” The New York Times writes.

2. Hijacked confab: Al-Monitor calls Netanyahu’s comments, together with Rudy Giuliani calling for pressure on Iran during a rally with extremist Iranian exile group MEK, a hijacking of the agenda.

  • “To be honest, even today, speaking to some of the Europeans, they have no clue what is coming out of this tomorrow,” Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on Foreign Relations tells the news site. “The impression they had is the agenda is still a mess. … one diplomat said it really depends on how the US handles the discussions in Warsaw. If they really go into full Iran-bashing mode, it is going to be so unhelpful.”
  • The Washington Post notes that many European countries scratched their attendance or sent only low-level delegates over fears of the anti-Iran agenda.
  • “What [US Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo originally billed as a major conference to pressure Iran on its regional influence, missile testing and terrorism is now as likely to be defined by what it is not — and who is not coming. Several key countries appear to be engaging in a subtle diplomatic snub to protest the Trump administration’s policies toward Iran and Syria,” the paper reports.
  • Expectations have become so low that even Israeli tabloid Israel Hayom, seen as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu, pushes coverage of the conference way down to page 9, after an anodyne feature about an online quiz testing electoral knowledge.

3. Good Oman? A so-called family photo was supposed to be a chance for Netanyahu to be shown hobnobbing with the dauphins, princelings and other diplomats of the Arab world that had come to the summit at the US’s urging.

  • Instead, pictures showed Netanyahu, the only head of state at the confab, standing awkwardly at the front and center of the picture, with only Polish President Adrej Duda next to him. There were no pictures showing him hobnobbing with Saudis or really anyone else aside from US veep Mike Pence.
  • Netanyahu did manage to meet with Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah. Coming months after Netanyahu actually visited Oman and met Sultan Qaboos in the open, the bin Alawi meeting was barely even a cherry on top.
  • There are also indications even that meeting was originally supposed to be secret. Bin Alawi did not use the front door of Netanyahu’s hotel, but rather a skeezy side entrance in the parking garage, where he was snapped by a couple Israeli journalists.
  • It could be that Tal Shalev and Barak Ravid just happened to be in the parking garage hanging out, or it could be that they were tipped off by an Israeli source, thus destroying any chance of the meeting remaining secret and allowing Netanyahu to convince bin Alawi to allow him to publicize it.
  • On Thursday, his office makes sure to tell reporters that Netanyahu sat next to the Yemeni foreign minister at a meeting.

4. Riyadh’s message to Israelis: That wasn’t even the biggest scoop of Channel 13’s Barak Ravid’s day, with an interview he did with Saudi royal and former ambassador to the US Turki bin Faisal airing that evening.

  • Ravid acknowledges that he is being utilized as a conduit for Riyadh to reach out to Israelis directly. Faisal, who met with King Salman days earlier, accuses Netanyahu of deceiving the Israeli people by claiming that Saudi Arabia is willing to forge open ties with Israel before a peace deal is reached with the Palestinians.
  • “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,” Faisal says.
  • He claims Israel has never responded to the Arab Peace Initiative and in Riyadh’s view, is not serious about trying to end the conflict.
  • “Israel has not been very cooperative as far as achieving peace in our part of the world.”
  • He also offers this doozy of a line, which would strike some as backwards: “With Israeli money and Saudi brains, we can go far.”

5. Sharm-less: Netanyahu’s appearance at the conference is seen by some as a way to raise his cachet ahead of elections, with US help.

  • Yedioth Ahronoth’s Sever Plotzker compares it to a 1996 international summit sponsored by the US in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in an unsuccessful bid to help Shimon Peres stay in power. The only difference is that the Poland summit is bush league in comparison.
  • “Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia sent low-level politicians, after considering staying away altogether, and really only foreign ministers are attending. The question of whether deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely could have represented Israel at the conference just as well as Netanyahu will remain open. At least until elections,” he writes.

6. Unambiguous campaigning: Netanyahu is also facing accusations of using the military as a propaganda tool, thus putting Israel in danger.

  • A day after the prime minister again broke Israeli ambiguity regarding strikes on Iran in Syria, chief rival Benny Gantz, a former IDF chief, told him to cut it out, saying he was putting soldiers’ lives at risk.
  • In response, Likud digs up a quote of Gantz’s in which he said he took extra precautions to safeguard Gazan civilians during an operation there, even if meant putting soldiers at risk. And it finds a 2013 article in which he gave an almost-hint at Israel carrying out a strike.
  • Haaretz’s lead editorial accuses Netanyahu of “repeatedly subordinating the interests of the State of Israel to his own political survival.”
  • “Netanyahu assumes that Israel’s military ambiguity serves his political rivals, while headlines that glorify Israel’s offensive capabilities under his rule constitute free and effective election propaganda,” it reads.

7. Fake foreign news: Netanyahu isn’t the only one trying to deceive the public, it seems.

  • Stories that have appeared in the Hebrew press over the last two days, in Channel 12 news, Walla and possibly others, have reported on Iran-backed fighters setting up posts near the Israeli border in the Golan Heights.
  • All the stories attribute the information to “foreign reports.” I have not seen a single one of these foreign reports, nor has anyone I spoke to. If they exist (and perhaps they do), they are quite hidden, if even Israeli news sites citing them can’t name them.
  • More likely is that these so-called foreign reports don’t even exist. Rather, it seems almost certain that the Defense Ministry or IDF or some other Israeli body gave the reporters the information, but told them they had to attribute it to “foreign reports.”
  • This type of obfuscation is all too common in Israel. Recently, Netanyahu’s office tried to do the same thing, sending out info and telling reporters to pretend it came from somewhere else, and the Defense Ministry unit that liaises with the Palestinians has been known to tell Israeli reporters to source information from it to nonexistent “Palestinian reports.” (This sometimes leads to a Kafka-esque situation in which real Palestinian media then picks up these stories, attributing them to actual Israeli sources — which had cited nonexistent Palestinian sources.)
  • The onus here, though, is really on the reporters, who should not even consider going along with these requests. While granting sources anonymity is sometimes done, straight-up lying about who those sources are is just not ethical.
  • No serious reporting has been done to determine independently if there are Iranian bases on the Golan — and there very well may be. If the IDF wants to get out that information, even just to signal to Iran that it knows what it is up to, then it should find ways to say it without trying to turn journalists into lying pawns.

8. Primary counters: That’s not to say there isn’t good serious reporting being done by journalists. Thanks to a report in Channel 12 news, Likud is carrying out a re-examination of its primary votes, with the results showing some minor shuffling, though no gain for Netanyahu rival Gideon Sa’ar.

  • Meretz, meanwhile, is embarking on its first ever primary Thursday.
  • A poll published by the Kan public broadcaster shows the far-left party dropping to four seats, with most of its lost seats heading to Labor, which shoots up to 11, thanks to its own primaries.

9. Homophobic far-rightists in bed together: A separate poll in Israel Hayom shows Meretz at 7 seats and Labor stuck at 8, but the real point of that poll is to show that the four far-right parties will need to join together if they want to get in, with it showing each of them falling below the threshold.

  • “Without unity, the right camp should worry,” reads the paper’s top headline, reiterating Netanyahu’s cupid-like call for the four — Jewish Home, National Union, Otzma Yehudit and Eli Yishai’s one-man Yachad show — to get in bed together, as they have indicated they will do.
  • They may be (but probably are not) having second thoughts about inviting Yishai to the pack, after his backers launched a campaign for him with an appeal to homophobia, promising he will make sure “there is no child with two fathers.”
  • Yedioth calls it a “hate campaign,” but in the same paper Nadav Abukasis, who is gay, says he’s not getting worked up.
  • “No Eli Yishai, no Betzalel Smotrich and no Bentzi Gopstein will actually change anything here. The nation moved on long ago,” he writes.
  • Responding to the campaign, Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid tweets, “With a dad like you, we’d have to agree.”

10. Ultimate fail: In Haaretz, Amir Tibon writes that Netanyahu’s appeal to the right, and his commitment to not join up with Benny Gantz, means the Trump peace plan is almost certainly already dead, should he stay in power.

  • “The ‘ultimate deal’ won’t be between Israel and the Arab world, but between Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners. He will protect each and every settlement in the West Bank, and they will protect him,” he writes. “With such a coalition making any progress toward peace impossible, it is also much less likely that any Arab leader would be willing to take a political risk and endorse a peace plan despite Palestinian opposition to it.”
  • In Foreign Policy, Michael Hirsch and Colum Lynch are similarly pessimistic about the chances for peace, given Jared Kushner’s negotiating style, which has seemed to involve pushing the Palestinians as far away as possible.
  • “His main goal appears to be breaking the hopes of Palestinians for anything resembling a fully sovereign state of their own and to force them to settle for economic benefits, according to Middle East experts who have been consulted on the Kushner approach or studied it,” the two write.
  • Former State Department official Ilan Goldenberg tells the magazine the peace plan “is dead the second it’s put down,”
  • “They have just completely lost the Palestinians,” he says. “There is no getting back unless Trump takes huge steps in the direction of the Palestinians.”
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