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What brings Israeli and Arab leaders together in Warsaw?

  • 13 Feb 2019

The US has brought Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt on a common platform with Israel while sidelining Palestinians.

US Vice President Mike Pence, 2nd left, met Poland's President Andrzej Duda, 4th right, in Warsaw, on February 13, 2019 ahead of a two-day international conference on the Middle East. ( AP )

Delegates from around the world are expected in snowy Warsaw, Poland, on Wednesday for an international conference focused on the Middle East. 

The two-day event organised by the United States was initially aimed at countering Iran's influence in the region by bringing together US allies on a single platform. 

Saudi Arabia, Israel, the UAE, Egypt and member countries of the European Union are sending their representatives. 

Officials from more than 60 countries have been invited to the conference dubbed the "Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Stability in the Middle East." 

But it remains unclear who will actually show up.

Here's what we do know about this meeting. 

It was all about Iran, initially

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo first raised the idea last month ahead of his 8-nation tour of the Middle East where he tried to gather support for President Donald Trump's containment policy for Iran.

At the time, the initiative was seen as a prelude to forming the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) - a proposed regional security alliance comprising members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), plus Egypt and Jordan.

But the US changed its focus to broader regional stability after getting a lukewarm response from the EU, which continues to adhere to the 2015 JCPOA deal that is meant to contain Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. 

The Trump administration withdrew from the deal last year and re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran. 

Israel's tunnel vision 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to insist the meeting is mainly about the Islamic republic of Iran.  

Before departing for Warsaw on Tuesday, he said: "The focus is Iran. This brings together Israel, the US, and countries in and beyond the region." 

The conference will see Israel and Arab countries sitting across the table for the first time since the Madrid Conference in 1991 when they met to try resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

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, especially when the status of Palestine is not part of the equation. 

What about Palestine? 

The Palestinian administration was also invited to the conference, but it refused to attend citing growing mistrust with the US and  has termed the summit a “conspiracy aimed at eliminating the Palestinian cause.” 

Washington last year recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital despite protests by the Palestinians who consider part of the historic city as the capital of their own future state. 

Instead, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Riyadh on Tuesday and met Saudi King Salman who reaffirmed his kingdom’s support for the Palestinian state. 

Jared Kushner, Trump’s advisor and son-in-law, is expected to share some parts of his “deal of the century,” which is branded as a peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians. 

He will not reveal the entire proposal until after elections in Israel scheduled for April 9. 

Winds of change

Israel is still not recognised by Arab countries outside of Egypt and Jordan.

But a few developments last year indicate that the Jewish state might finally be reaching a rapprochement with its Arab neighbours. In October last year, 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 Arab states stand to benefit from their close cooperation with Israel, which shares Saudi Arabia’s unease over Iran’s military expansion in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. 

“Moves towards normalisation with Israel by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, pose an internal risk to these states, because the Palestinian cause holds religious, historical, and political importance to Arab and Muslim people,” Sina Toosi, an analyst at the National Iranian American Council, told TRT World. 

“Such moves will not be welcomed by the Arab street and exacerbate the division between the autocratic rulers of these states and their people.” 

The European conundrum

Most European countries are sending low-ranking officials. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has announced she won’t be attending the meeting. 

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. 

The EU is desperately trying to keep the nuclear deal with Iran alive. Recently, it set up a mechanism that allows European companies to do business with Iran by circumventing the US sanctions. 

The position of Poland, the co-host of the conference, 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. 

Poland’s ruling nationalist government is trying to woo Washington to build a permanent US military base as a counter to Russia, which has also refused to attend the Warsaw conference. 

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