There is little that will make Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as happy as a photo-op with Arab leaders whom he’s scheduled to meet on Wednesday in Warsaw, Poland.
Netanyahu and a number of officials from Middle Eastern countries are gathering for a two-day summit organised by the United States.
Initially, the meeting was supposed to be part of the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), which has been dubbed the Arab NATO – a regional security alliance comprising members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), plus Egypt and Jordan.
The main purpose of the meeting that includes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates was to build an alliance against their common enemy, Iran.
For Netanyahu, who faces an election in April amid a corruption probe, this could easily turn out to be an opportunity to show-off his leadership acumen, especially when the status of Palestine is not part of the equation.
But the refusal of a major power such as Russia to attend the meeting has forced the US to change its tone. The gathering is no longer being mooted as a platform to form an anti-Iran alliance. Instead, it’s aim has been refocused on the stability of the Middle East.
Palestinian officials have denounced the US-led initiative, calling it a “conspiracy aimed at eliminating the Palestinian cause.”
Most European countries are sending low-ranking officials. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has announced she won’t be attending the meeting either.
Only British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is scheduled to participate, but he says that’s because he wants to talk about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iran-backed Houthis.
Poland’s position remains ambiguous. While becoming a willing host of the conference, it has publicly stated that it stands with the EU in backing the nuclear deal with Iran.
The landmark agreement signed in 2015 was aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear programme but offering the country relief from sanctions.
Poland’s ruling nationalist government is trying to woo Washington to build a permanent US military base.
Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s advisor and son-in-law, is expected to share some parts of his “deal of the century,” which seeks to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
He will not reveal the entire proposal until after April 9 elections in Israel.
Israel is still not recognised by the Arab countries except for Egypt and Jordan.
But a few developments last year indicated that the Jewish state might finally be reaching a rapprochement with its Arab neighbours. In October 2018, Netanyahu traveled to Oman to meet the Sultan and was given a state reception.
That preceded a visit by Israel’s Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev to Abu Dhabi, where she cried while the Israeli national anthem played at a sporting event.
What remains unclear is how much of a benefit Arab states stand to draw from their close cooperation with Israel, which shares Saudi Arabia’s unease over Iran’s military expansion in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Some experts say the US wants to use the Warsaw meeting to mobilize a predominantly Arab force, made up largely of soldiers from Egypt and Jordan, to act as peacekeepers in Syria.
On its part, Iranian officials say the conference is just another attempt to pressure the Islamic republic, which has survived harsh US sanctions.
“Reminder to host/participants of anti-Iran conference: those who attended last U.S. anti-Iran show are either dead, disgraced, or marginalized. And Iran is stronger than ever,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in a tweet last month.
Zarif also criticised Poland for hosting the conference, recalling how Iran had given refuge to thousands of Polish people during the Second World War.
In the midst of this geopolitical shift, what’s not being talked about is the Arab League’s 2002 peace initiative, which offered Israel diplomatic relations only in exchange for its withdrawal from the Palestinian lands.