Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed to Warsaw on Tuesday evening to attend a US-Polish conference on the Middle East, which is expected to focus on Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
Netanyahu will reportedly be looking to use the summit, to be attended by several high-ranking officials from Muslim countries in the region, to help expand ties with the Arab world.
The summit appears to be the first time an Israeli leader and senior Arab officials will attend 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 said before taking off that Iran, and not Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, would be the centerpiece of talks at the summit, and slammed European countries for continuing to work with Iran.
“Iran is sending terrorists to European capitals and at the same time … some Western European governments are helping Iran. It’s just mindboggling,” he said.
“It’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of folly,” he added, in apparent reference to European powers pursuing an appeasement policy with Nazi Germany in 1938.
In Warsaw, Netanyahu — the only head of government to attend the conference — is scheduled to meet US Vice President Mike Pence and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as visit the city’s Jewish museum and lay a wreath at the Ghetto Heroes Monument, which commemorates the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
On Sunday, he indicated that he would meet with additional “world leaders” but did not elaborate.
“I’m planning to see everyone who’s there in one big great room,” he said, adding that Israel had good ties with all countries in the region aside from Syria.
No meetings with top Arab officials have been scheduled, despite efforts to set one up, according to the Kan public broadcaster.
Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, UAE, Kuwait, Morocco are all sending foreign ministers, according to Poland.
Netanyahu and the Arab officials will share a stage during a group photo scheduled for meeting participants. Netanyahu’s last face to face meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took place during a similar group photo at 2015 Paris climate talks.
This time, however, Abbas will not attend, and Palestinians have been heavily critical of the conference.
Efforts to thwart Iranian aggression are widely expected to take center stage at the summit, whose official title is “Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East,” though at least one session is dedicated to the US administration’s efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
“The first issue on the agenda is Iran — how to continue preventing it from entrenching in Syria, how to thwart its aggression in the region and, above all, how to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said Sunday in his weekly cabinet meeting.
The US and Poland — who co-organized the summit — insisted that the conference’s objective is not to bash Iran.
Rather, the event will deal with “the whole region and the challenges it is facing, be it civil wars, terrorism, energy or cybersecurity,” Polish Ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski told The Times of Israel this week.
“So the nature of the upcoming conference is, in our view, definitely not anti-Iranian.”
The Iranian leadership, however, slammed the event as an attempt to isolate them, and threatened Poland with consequences.
Reminder to host/participants of anti-Iran conference: those who attended last US anti-Iran show are either dead, disgraced, or marginalized. And Iran is stronger than ever.
Polish Govt can't wash the shame: while Iran saved Poles in WWII, it now hosts desperate anti-Iran circus. pic.twitter.com/iOOvhgtUsL
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 11, 2019
Palestinians officials, meanwhile, have described the meeting as an effort by the US to advance its anti-Palestinian positions.
“To be clear: Palestine has not mandated anyone to speak on its behalf. Despite US efforts to promote normalization of diplomatic relations between Arab states and Israel, no changes in the Arab Peace Initiative will be accepted,” Palestine Liberation Organization secretary-general Saeb Erekat wrote in a syndicated op-ed published Tuesday.
“Full normalization of ties with Israel will take place only after a final-status agreement is achieved and Israel ends its control of all Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Syria’s Golan Heights and Palestine’s East Jerusalem.”
“The Warsaw Conference is an attempt at bypassing the Arab Peace Initiative and destroying the Palestinian National project,” said Erekat, referring to a Saudi proposal to extend Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for a pullout to the pre-1967 armistice lines and a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees.
His statement came a day after the Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry called the conference an “American conspiracy.”
A White House official last week told reporters the Palestinians had been invited to the conference.
The PA has boycotted the US administration since President Donald Trump’s 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move it said meant the US could no longer serve as a mediator in peace talks.
Ties between the sides have continued to fray since then, with the US moving to end aid it provides to Palestinians and cut funding to Abbas over his refusal to enter negotiations and Ramallah’s payments to terror convicts and their families.
According to a US official, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner will discuss the White House’s peace efforts during the conference and take questions from the audience.
“We would very much welcome the Palestinian Authority’s perspectives during the discussion, but I do want to emphasize this is not a negotiation but a discussion, and we look forward to fostering a constructive conversation in Warsaw,” the official was quoted saying by Reuters.
Kushner will be accompanied in Warsaw by Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The US peace plan reportedly includes an economic development proposal for Palestinians that foresees major infrastructure and industrial work, particularly in Gaza. For the plan to succeed or even pass the starting gate, it will need at least initial buy-in from both Israel and the Palestinians as well as from the Gulf Arab states, which officials say will be asked to substantially bankroll the economic portion.
A senior US official told The Times of Israel this week that a date for the peace plan’s rollout has not yet been decided and there are “numerous considerations” that may play a role and push its release back to mid-May at the earliest.
Netanyahu is scheduled to arrive in Warsaw on Tuesday around midnight, but the first event on the schedule his office sent reporters is the meeting with Pompeo at 4.15 P.M., which would leave plenty of time for secret meetings with some of the Arab officials in town for the conference.
Later on Wednesday, Netanyahu will attend a welcoming ceremony for heads of delegations at Warsaw’s historic Royal Castle.
On Thursday morning, Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz and Pompeo will open the conference, which will take place at capital’s PGE Narodowy Stadium.
Netanyahu’s office said he, too, will address the summit’s opening session, though his name does not appear on the program issued by the Polish Foreign Ministry.
After a group photo of foreign dignitaries, the heads of delegation will have working lunch, which will be addressed by Pence and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
After lunch, Netanyahu and Pence will head to the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes and lay a wreath there. The two leaders will then walk together to POLIN — Museum of the History of Polish Jews, where they will conduct a working meeting.
On Thursday evening, the prime minister’s delegation is set to return to Israel.
Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.