On 13-14 February, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended a rather unusual meeting in Poland.[i] It was a two-day long US-led Middle Eastern Conference which took place on 13 and 14 February 2019[ii]; however, the meeting turned out to be a success story or a win-win situation for Israel especially all in favour of the Israeli Prime Minister. The conference was co-hosted by Poland and the US. It was titled “Ministerial to Promote Peace and Security in the Middle East” which suggests that it was not a head of state level meet. Ministers and representatives from 62 countries such as the UK, the US, European Union, Israel and others were present. Amongst all, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was the only head of the state in attendance.[iii] The Ministerial had three main sections, namely, “tackling the region’s most challenging problems”, “advancing strong alliances and partnerships”, and “a framework for driving progress and sustaining momentum”.[iv]
Initially, the summit agenda was termed as “anti-Iran conference” but due to protests from some of the European Union countries it was scrapped and renamed as the ministerial for peace and security.[v] However, the discussions in the meeting primarily focused on bashing Iran’s actions in the region.[vi] The message to the Persian state was crystal clear as despite being a regional power and a major country in the Middle East it was not invited for the Summit.[vii] One of the main reasons why the conference turned out to be controversial! Other countries that did not attend the summit from the region were Qatar, Turkey, Lebanon and Palestinian Authority. While Turkey did not send its representatives as it felt the prime agenda of the summit was to target one country; Palestinian Authority criticised it and called out the Arabs for diluting the Arab-Israel conflict.
Nevertheless, there were 10 Arab countries foreign ministers and representatives in attendance from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Egypt and Tunisia. Interestingly, this was the first time when an open discussion on the Middle Eastern problems was conducted between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Arab Ministers. There have been noises in the media on the individual covert relations that most of the countries in the Arab world have had with Israel over the years. Egypt and Jordan, however, have been the only countries sharing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. The countries have conducted ministerial or lower level dialogues with their Israeli counterparts but the development were always at the level of secrecy and no public acknowledgement from the Arab sides. Israel has always been vocal about the meetings.[viii] The growing relations were also confirmed by Wikileaks release in 2009 which talked of the Israel’s relations with the Gulf States and focus on Iran.[ix] However, this time the summit was highly publicised by Israel as well as in the Arab and international media.
Even Netanyahu tweeted threads of tweets on his meeting with the Arab leaders. According to Israeli Prime Minister’s twitter handle, “…this is an open meeting with representatives of leading Arab countries”.[x] He further elaborated in the same tweet that they “are sitting down together with Israel in order to advance the common interest of combating Iran”.[xi] It was pointed out by some analysts that the prime minister had tweeted a controversial statement at first wherein he sort of declared a war with Iran along with his Arab counterparts but the tweet was soon deleted and replaced with another one. The former tweet read as “…common interest of war with Iran” was replaced by “…common interest of combating Iran” thereby adding a softer tone to it.[xii]
However, this was the only controversy made by the Israeli leader; others got into more serious controversies than this. For instance, the US and particularly President Trump was criticised for sidelining Iran, a major regional power, for not inviting the latter to the Summit. Poland was accused of submitting before the US as it did earlier to Russia; European Union was criticised for not taking a firm stand and for sending junior representatives to the meeting while Arabs were accused of diluting the Arab-Israeli conflict by sharing the platform with the Jewish nation.
The most interesting aspects of the summit were its name, date, place, timing and significance from Israeli angle. The title of the summit as mentioned above was a “Ministerial to promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East”, therefore, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attendance suggested that the meeting was important for his country. The dates were 13-14 February wherein the main agendas were discussed on the second day which co-incidentally was a Valentine’s Day. Similarly, the place chosen was Warsaw which holds historical significance in terms of hosting the famous Warsaw Pact of 1955 popularly known as the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between the Soviet Union and seven Eastern bloc states of Central and Eastern Europe. The summit was significant for the Israeli leader as was co-attended by representatives of 10 Arab states. In international relations symbolism play a crucial role and are indicative of next moves taken by the leaders. Keeping that in mind, combination of the four factors and Netanyahu’s tweets is suggestive of the fact that Israel and the Arab world are to act together against Iran under the guidance of the Big Boss, the US.
Another important development that took place in Warsaw was the discussion held on the four verticals, namely, counter-terrorism and illicit finance; curbing missile development and weapons proliferation; combating cyber and emerging threats and humanitarian issues and human rights.[xiii] Notably, earlier all of these concerns were raised and discussed against Israel within the context of Israeli treatment of Palestinians. However, seemingly, the tables have turned! And Israel is sitting sharing the same table with the Arabs against the Persian state.
Hence, from Israeli point of view the meeting was a success story because of following reasons, first, it was an open meeting between the Arab leaders and Israel; second, Netanyahu had elections in mind which was held merely two months after the summit on 9 April; and third, the meeting was directly-indirectly against Iran and to curb its regional expansion. The idea probably is to secure the region from both sides! This means Gulf under the protection of Arabs and Mediterranean region to be protected by Israel as it was stated by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) that Iran has lost its way and is meddling in the Mediterranean[xiv.
Another fact which strengthens the argument of growing Israeli role in the region against Iran can be traced to the 21 January tweets by the IDF wherein for the first time the organisation owned its actions in Syria when it conducted several airstrikes on the Iranian Qud forces in retaliation and posted the developments on the same. Hence, one could draw a correlation between the acknowledgements of airstrikes and the occurrence of Warsaw summit; both within a span of a month!
In the end, what does a growing Arab-Israeli relation imply? Does it mean that a solution to the Arab-Israel conflict is in the process? The relations between the parties are definitely going to change from a secret, covert, clandestine to open recognition, acknowledgement, and alliance and maybe towards normalisation. In the years to come, the region might witness more open relations with Israel as the countries seem to develop a rather softer approach. However, the time is still not ripe to say that there will be a dilution of the protracted conflict between Arabs and Israel. The relations may develop at the level of states, thereby meaning that an alliance at the Arab-Israel level is in the making; however, the one at the Arab-Jewish level is still a far-fetched idea. Hence, the conflict might get subdued with the emerging regional concerns and even diluted to some extent but will not get extinct! Most importantly, the summit seemed to have favoured Netanyahu is increasing his stature domestically keeping in mind the early declaration of elections in April[xv]. From building a rapport with the Arabs to increasing role of Israel in the region, Netanyahu has definitely scored an A+ in his report card. As per the live reports shared by the Haaretz on the 94 per cent of the votes, Netanyahu has already secured 35 seats, that is, one of the highest and equivalent to his opponent Benny Gaantz.[xvi] At the bloc level, the right-wing bloc is ahead of the centre-left bloc by 10 seats (wherein Right wing bloc secured 65 seats and centre-left bloc got 55 seats). Additionally, majority of the right-wing parties have said that they would support Netanyahu to form a coalition government.[xvii] This suggests that the incumbent will get a fifth term of office soon. However, the final results are yet to be released as in Israel it is difficult to predict as to who will form a government until the government is actually formed.
In the Indian context, the question that needs proper attention is that what implication will the growing Arab-Israeli bonhomie have on India? Given that India has cordial relations with all the three regional powers; namely, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel, it will be in Indian interest to maintain the balance as it has been doing always. However, the present scenario of emerging new regional power dynamics, calls for India to strengthen the already maintained balance. New Delhi cannot risk its relations with Tehran which has a closer geographical proximity to Pakistan and also to Afghanistan, the new found interest for India. The stature of India as a rising global power and the one with independent foreign policy towards Middle East will probably help it to persuade the American fulcrum and to have a calculated, strategic and balanced approach with regard to all the major actors in the region.
[i] Embassy of Israel in India (2019), “PM Netanyahu Attends the Warsaw Conference”, 15 February, Available at: https://embassies.gov.il/delhi/NewsAndEvents/Pages/PM-Netanyahu-attends-the-Warsaw-Conference-14-February-2019.aspx, (Accessed on 3 April 2019). [ii] US Department of State (2019), “The Ministerial to Promote Peace and Security in the Middle East”, Press Release, Available at: https://www.state.gov/p/nea/c81323.htm, (Accessed on 3 April 2019). [iii] Oliver Homes (2019), “Do Netanyahu’s Smiles With Arab Leaders Signal A New Era?”, The Guardian, 14 February, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/14/netanyahu-israel-arab-leaders-iran-palestine-warsaw-summit, (Accessed on 3 April 2019). [iv] US Department of State (2019), “The Ministerial to Promote Peace and Security in the Middle East”, Fact Sheet, 13 February, Available at: https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/02/289416.htm, (Accessed on 3 April 2019). [v] Patrick Wintour (2019), “European Powers to Present Cool Front at Warsaw Summit”, The Guardian, 12 February, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/feb/12/european-powers-take-backseat-in-us-polish-summit-on-middle-east, (Accessed on 3 April 2019). [vi] Reuters (2019), “US To Host Iran-Focused Global Meeting in Poland Feb. 13-14”, Washington, 11 January, Available at: https://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKCN1P519A, (Accessed on 3 April 2019). [vii] Xinhua (2019), “Poland Says 11Middle East Countries to Attend Warsaw Conference”, Warsaw, 12 February, Available at: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-02/12/c_137814132.htm, (Accessed on 3 April 2019). [viii] Yolande Knell (2018), “Israel-Arab Ties Warm Up After Long Deep Freeze”, BBC, 6 November, Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-46075180, (Accessed on 3 April 2019). [ix] Wikileaks Cable (2009), “Israel’s Relations with the Gulf States Focus on Iran, Perception of Israeli Influence in Washington”, 19 March, Available at: https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09TELAVIV654_a.html, (Accessed on 3 April 2019). [x] @IsraeliPM (2019), PM of Israel Twitter Handle, 14 February, Available at: http://twitter.com/IsraeliPM, (Accessed on 3 April 2019). [xi] Ibid. [xii] Ilanit Chernick (2019), “Netanyahu Stirs Controversy In Warsaw with Mistaken Iran War Tweet”, The Jerusalem Post, 13 February, Available at: https://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Netanyahu-stirs-controversy-in-Warsaw-with-mistaken-Iran-war-tweet-580602, (Accessed on 3 April 2019). [xiii] US Department of State (2019), “Remarks at the Ministerial to Promote Peace and Security in the Middle East”, 14 February, Available at: https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2019/02/289457.htm, (Accessed on 3 April 2019). [xiv] @IDF (2019), Israel Defence Force Twitter Handle, 21 January, Available at: https://twitter.com/IDF, (Accessed on 3 April 2019). [xv] General election was to be held in November but the Knesset was dissolved in December and early elections were declared in April. The decision was taken after serious corruption charges were slapped against the incumbent Prime Minister and his family. This forced Netanyahu to dissolve the parliament and call for an early election. [xvi] Haaretz (2019), “Israel Election 2019: Live Results”, 10 April, Available at: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections, (Accessed on 10 April 2019). [xvii]Haaretz (2019), “Israel Election: Vote Count Almost Finished; Bennett’s Party Teetering on Edge of Threshold”, Live Updates, 11 April, Available at: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections/israel-election-2019-right-wing-bloc-in-clear-lead-as-netanyahu-and-gantz-tie-1.7107636, (Accessed on 13 April 2019).