War & peace, Polish offense, a broken plane: Crazy days with Netanyahu in Warsaw
Reporter's notebook

War & peace, Polish offense, a broken plane: Crazy days with Netanyahu in Warsaw

‘Amazing’ things unfolded in Israeli-Arab ties during his three-day visit to Poland this week, the PM has said. Well, the trip has certainly been unforgettable

Raphael Ahren

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to reporters on the plane home from Poland in the early hours of February 15, 2019. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to reporters on the plane home from Poland in the early hours of February 15, 2019. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

WARSAW — Reporters covering Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trips abroad collect some memorable experiences over the years.

In September 2012 — my first time joining a prime ministerial voyage as The Times of Israel’s diplomatic correspondent  — the bus that was supposed to transport us from New York’s JFK Airport to the UN headquarters broke down.

Stranded inside a tunnel on FDR Drive freeway, with cars swooshing by, my colleagues and I hitched a ride in an empty yellow school bus driven by a Russian-speaking Jew, who volunteered to drive us to Turtle Bay in time to catch Netanyahu’s speech.

In July 2017, on the way back from Budapest, the prime minister’s wife Sara — a former flight attendant — decided to celebrate the birthday of a staff member and insisted on personally serving my colleagues and me cake in our seats in the back of the plane.

Of course, there are also much loftier reasons to remember trips with the prime minister. Netanyahu considers nearly all of his trips “historic,” but some truly are — as, for instance when he marked the 40th anniversary of the Entebbe raid at the very airport in the heart of Uganda where his beloved brother Yoni was killed.

There was the moving occasion when he laid a wreath at the site of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, where on March 17, 1992, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the compound, killing 29 people, including Israelis. (On that trip, he became the first Israeli leader to visit Latin America.)

And a landmark trip came when we flew to N’Djamena earlier this year, for just a few hours, for the official reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Chad, a Muslim-majority in northern Central Africa.

Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno (R) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the presidential palace in N’Djamena, Chad on January 20, 2019. (Brahim Adji/AFP)

This week’s three-day trip to Poland had its share of both pretty peculiar and potentially pivotal moments. It was also not short, however, on what might be described as screw-ups — prime ministerial and otherwise.

A ‘new era’?

Netanyahu traveled to Warsaw to attend a conference on the Middle East, which he said would focus on the common goal of tackling Iran and its aggression. Delegates from 60 countries attended the so-called “Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East,” including the foreign ministers of nearly a dozen Arab states.

No joint statement was released at the end of the summit — mostly due to the fact that the US and some of the attending European nations do not see eye to eye vis-à-vis Iran — and the text that American and Polish co-organizers released did not actually refer to the Islamic Republic.

Tehran was mentioned frequently by delegates as a source of instability in the region, but the summit did not reach any concrete conclusions. In this context, it is worth noting that at the same time, the presidents of Iran, Turkey and Russia — the countries that have a lot more skin in the Syrian game than Poland and even the US (which is planning to withdraw its remaining troops) — convened in Sochi to discuss their plans for the future of the war-torn country.

And yet, the Warsaw Summit featured some highly significant elements. For the first time in many years, senior officials from Arab countries agreed to attend an international conference discussing peace in the Middle East together with Israel.

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, 2019. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Netanyahu hosted the foreign minister of Oman on Wednesday afternoon, even before the summit had started. The two men hailed a “new era” in the Middle East, recalling the prime minister’s recent visit to Muscat, where he met Sultan Qaboos.

On Wednesday evening, at the conference’s opening gala in Warsaw’s historic Royal Castle, Netanyahu — the only head of government in attendance — took the podium right after a panel of the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. What’s even more remarkable than the fact that these ministers, and other Arab delegates, did not leave the room when the Zionist prime minister spoke is that their core messages were exactly the same.

Both Netanyahu and the Arab ministers agreed in their separate presentations — offered behind closed doors, with the press kept out — that the nuclear deal with Tehran was a terrible mistake and that, overall, Iran is the most pressing matter the Middle East needs to address, trumping the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

“Every nation has the right to defend itself, when it’s challenged by another nation, yes,” the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said in response to a question about Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said that the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians would have been at a much better place were it not for Iran’s malign behavior.

“We grew up talking about the Israel-Palestine issue as the most important issue” that has to be “solved, one way or another.” he said. “But then, at a later stage, we saw a bigger challenge, we saw a more toxic one — in fact the more toxic one in our history — that came from the Islamic Republic.”

It is no secret that the Gulf states have no love lost for Iran, and that some are warming relations with Israel. But having three ministers say some of this relatively openly (more on that in a moment) is unprecedented.

Netanyahu himself later gushed to the press about a taboo being broken, saying the Arab officials were acutely aware that it is being noticed that they publicly interact with him, but no longer care that much.

The dinner, he said, was a “historic turning point” in Israeli-Arab relations.

On Thursday morning, at the summit’s opening session, Netanyahu was seated next to Yemen’s Foreign Minister Khaled Alyemani. Officially, Israel still considers Yemen an “enemy state” and prohibits its citizens from traveling there. The hostility is usually reciprocal.

But when it was the Israeli leader’s turn to address the conference, his microphone didn’t work, so Alyemani gracefully let him use his. Another example of the creeping normalization between Israel and the Arab world?

Not so fast.

Alyemani later took to Twitter to clarify, without naming Netanyahu, that the conference’s organizers were in charge of protocol, and “errors” in the way the delegates were seated is their responsibility.

Also, Bahrain — a country many Israelis think is ready to openly speak about ties with Israel — did not use the conference as an opportunity to make any substantive diplomatic move.

“My whole country is holding its breath for the moment when you’ll establish formal relations with us,” I said to Al Khalifa, the foreign minister, when he walked over to shake my hand after delegates had gathered in a conference room to pose for a “family photo.” He kept on shaking my hand but didn’t respond at first. “Is it going to happen?” I pressed.

“Eventually,” he replied, now moving toward the exit.

“Will it happen soon?” I called after him, but he was not interested in answering.

In the end, apart from the Omani foreign minister, Netanyahu left the conference without a photographed direct meeting with any of the Arab leaders he insists are no longer concerned with keeping their Israel relationship secret. Warsaw was certainly a step forward in Israel’s slow rapprochement with the Arab world, but slow is the operative word.

‘War’ with Iran

The trip was memorable for other reasons, at least for a reporter looking for interesting angles.

Between hosting the Omani foreign minister and the summit’s opening gala, Netanyahu took a stroll outside his hotel to film a clip he later posted on his social media account. In the short video, he speaks, in Hebrew, of the common interest to advance “war with Iran.”

The statement was translated into English and posted on the prime minister’s social media accounts, quickly raising an internet storm. Senior journalists from various parts of the world reported on the apparently belligerent statement, and even Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif weighed in.

The prime minister’s aides quickly removed the tweets, and re-posted Netanyahu’s comments — now speaking, in a more sensitive translation, of “combating Iran.”

The actual conference, held in halls at a soccer stadium, went smoothly for Netanyahu, as did his meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the sidelines of the event.

His planned sit-down with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, on the other hand, nearly turned into a diplomatic incident, as Netanyahu kept his host waiting for over an hour. Elsewhere at the conference, Jared Kushner was discussing his Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal, and apparently Netanyahu didn’t want to leave the room in the middle of that session.

A wreath-laying ceremony at a monument honoring the members of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising later that afternoon also passed with no problems, as did the subsequent brief meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence at the adjacent Jewish museum.

Poles and the Holocaust

Still in the museum, Netanyahu sat down for a briefing with the traveling Israeli press, as he does on every trip. He spoke at considerable length about the conference and the significance of him sitting in the same room as Arab leaders. “Amazing” things were happening, he said. He also repeatedly urged us to use our sources to find out exactly what those Arab leaders had said during the previous night’s opening gala.

Since we were in a museum at the very site where the Jewish ghetto once stood, I decided to ask Netanyahu about last year’s controversial joint Israeli-Polish declaration regarding the Holocaust.

The issue indeed came up in his meeting with Morawiecki, the prime minister told me, but he refused to respond to the harsh criticism Israeli historians have leveled at the text.

Rather, he said that Poles “in not insignificant numbers” cooperated with the Nazis, adding that he was unaware that anyone was prosecuted for saying this. (Polish law prohibits accusing the “Polish nation” of complicity in the Holocaust.)

But The Jerusalem Post initially mischaracterized Netanyahu’s quote as having referred to the Polish nation, which kicked off a veritable diplomatic incident. Poland threatened to boycott a planned conference next week in Jerusalem, and summoned Israel’s ambassador in Warsaw. The crisis only began to die down after Israeli officials clarified that the prime minister had never said the “Polish nation” was responsible for Nazi atrocities.

The leaked clip

Late Thursday, Netanyahu’s spokesperson sent several reporters a link to a clip with the Arab foreign ministers’ pro-Israel, anti-Iran statements from the gala the night before. It was a private link to the prime minister’s YouTube channel, and the spokesperson tried to make it seem as if the link was sent out to reporters accidentally (though we all recalled that Netanyahu and aides had urged us at the briefing to find out what was said at the event).

Either way, determining that the clip’s content was emphatically of public interest, we decided together to report on it, despite the odd way in which it was made available.

Shortly after the first headlines and tweets about the sensational quotes appeared (followed by criticism from opposition MK Tzipi Livni, who accused the prime minister of jeopardizing Israel’s foreign relations to score points before the elections), Netanyahu’s office removed the clip.

One of my colleagues was later assured that the link had indeed been sent out accidentally. If so, it was a mistake that may have played to Netanyahu’s personal political favor ahead of the elections, and the clip did confirm everything he had told us in the briefing not long before about that common Arab concern over Iran and its overshadowing of the Palestinian issue. As for the longer-term consequence, and the question of whether the Arab leaders in the clip will feel burned by the PMO and more wary of interacting with the Israeli leadership, only time will tell.

The plane problem

Later Thursday evening, after Netanyahu made reporters wait for several hours (possibly for a Valentine’s Day dinner with his wife?), we were finally driven to the airport for the flight home, where we waited again for what felt like an eternity.

Tired from a busy day of running around and reporting, we boarded the plane about half an hour after midnight. Some 40 minutes later, the plane started moving. Then it came to a halt.

Flight crew stand in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s damaged plane on February 15, 2019. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

A vehicle had collided with the plane’s front wheel, causing damage that could not be immediately repaired. Security officials and El Al engineers scurried about the aircraft for a while, looking as confused as we were. At about 2:30 a.m., it was decided that El Al would have to send a substitute plane from Israel, and that we would have to spend another night in Warsaw.

A Warsaw airport vehicle that damaged the plane that was supposed to take Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to Israel, February 15, 2019. (Raphael Ahren)

At about 3:15 a.m., we checked in at a nearby hotel, hoping to get some rest. A little less than four hours later, we were told via WhatsApp message that we had half an hour to pack and head to the El Al counter at the airport for another series of security checks and passport controls. After that, and some more waiting, we finally boarded the Boeing 737 that would take us back to Tel Aviv (where this article was written).

Now we just had to wait for the prime minister and his wife, who had spent the night at the Intercontinental, in the city center.

They arrived at 10:30 a.m., looking well-rested. Before they could sit down, reporters dashed toward the first class seats to ask the prime minister about the Holocaust row with Poland, on which he had not yet commented. He refused to answer any questions.

Instead, Sara Netanyahu told us journalists how well her husband had cared for our well-being over the last few hours. She did not serve us cake.

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