Gulf leaders praise Israel ties in closed-door meeting

Bahrain’s foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa. (US Department of State / Flickr

Gulf officials showcased their hostility towards Iran and their affection for Israel at the Warsaw conference hosted by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office leaked and then deleted a video of a closed-door meeting at the conference showing officials from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates spewing invective against Iran and defending Israel.

Bahrain’s foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa downplayed Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

“We grew up talking about the Palestine-Israel dispute as the most important issue,” he said in the video. “But then at a later stage, we saw a bigger challenge. We saw a more toxic one, in fact the most toxic in our modern history, which came from the Islamic Republic, from Iran.”

UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said that “Every nation has the right to defend itself when it’s challenged by another nation,” when asked about Israel’s military attacks on Syria.

Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir blamed Iran, not Israel, for the plight of the Palestinians.

“Who is supporting Hamas and Islamic Jihad and undercutting the Palestinian Authority?” he said, “Iran.”

While Gulf officials were making those comments on stage, Netanyahu was sitting in the audience.

There were no representatives from Iran or the Palestinian Authority at the conference.

Netanyahu returned to Israel boasting of the “unfathomable” friendly atmosphere he encountered in the Polish capital.

The prime minister told Israeli journalists that Arab leaders are more concerned with enmity towards Iran than they are with the Palestinian question.

Oman’s overt gestures

During the conference, Oman’s foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah met with Netanyahu.

The Israeli government and media circulated a video showing Oman’s foreign minister arriving through the parking lot entrance of a Warsaw hotel for a secret meeting with the Israeli leader.

Netanyahu told bin Alawi that he speaks not only on behalf of Israel, but on behalf of “many people in the Middle East” in thanking Oman for its move towards normalization with Israel.

Bin Alawi also met with Israel’s former foreign minister Tzipi Livni at the Munich Security Conference on Friday.

Livni has evaded legal proceedings in several countries in recent years in connection with war crimes in Gaza.

Last October, Netanyahu visited Oman in the most visible sign of Israel’s normalization of ties with Arab states with which it has no formal relations.

Bin Alawi nonetheless tried to downplay Oman’s brazen embrace of Israel.

“There is no normalization, but there is a continuation of the search for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian issue. As I mentioned, an independent and sovereign Palestinian state is a prerequisite for any normalization or any future relationship between the Arab region and Israel,” he said during a meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow.

Yemen’s public rejects normalization

During the Warsaw conference, Khaled Alyemany – the foreign minister in the exiled Yemeni government backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that are waging a war that has killed thousands of civilians in Yemen and caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis there – was seated next to Netanyahu.

When Netanyahu’s microphone malfunctioned, Alyemany loaned him his.

Netanyahu then “joked about the new cooperation between Israel and Yemen,” according to Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy, who enthused about the moment on Twitter.

Alyemany posted a picture of himself with Pompeo on Twitter, saying the pair were discussing “Iranian threats to the region.”

As the Saudi-backed Yemeni government in exile cozied up to Israel, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Yemen’s capital Sanaa on Sunday to protest normalization with Israel and show their support for Palestinians:

The Saudi-led US- and British-backed war on Yemen has killed thousands of civilians and caused hunger to millions. Tens of thousands of children under 5 are estimated to have died of starvation.

For more than three years, the United Arab Emirates air force has also participated in the bombing campaign.

Qatari normalization

Following the Warsaw conference, former Qatari prime minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani tweeted his conditional support for normalization with Israel.

“Warsaw wedding: there was an engagement in the past and there was a wedding in Warsaw, and the attendees were either witnesses or guests,” bin Jassim tweeted. “I repeat that I am not against normalization or against opening a relationship with Israel, but the relationship must be equal and not built at the expense of Palestinian rights.”

Hamad bin Jassim added that to achieve a lasting solution it was necessary to “motivate the Israelis to return the rights” of the Palestinians. But he characterized the Warsaw meeting as more of an excuse for normalization than part of a push towards peace.

Qatar’s foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani echoed the remarks of Oman’s foreign minister.

“The core issue of the relationship between Qatar and Israel is the Palestinian issue,” the top Qatari diplomat said at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday. “As long as this is not resolved, there will always be a problem between us. This applies for all the Arab countries.”

“We will support any US efforts that will have an acceptable context for the Palestinian people. We hope they will bring something positive for the Palestinians,” he added.

Rallying against Iran

US Vice President Mike Pence celebrated Gulf-Israel normalization based on mutual enmity towards Iran in his speech at Warsaw.

“Israel’s prime minister openly visits Oman. Just last week, Pope Francis visited the United Arab Emirates. Longstanding enemies are becoming partners,” he said in his speech.

“At the outset of this historic conference, leaders from across the region agreed the greatest threat to peace and security in the Middle East is the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Rejecting normalization

The Palestinian resistance and political organization Hamas condemned this recent blitz of normalization.

“We deplore the participation of Arab officials in the ‘Warsaw conference’ alongside the leaders of the Zionist entity, while the entity is practicing the most heinous crimes against our Palestinian people and violating our sacred and fundamental rights,” the organization stated on Twitter.

The grand mufti of al-Aqsa mosque, Muhammad Hussein, also condemned the actions of Arab leaders, affirming that “their positions do not represent the people of the al-Aqsa Mosque.”

Meanwhile, Kuwait, which has been the most resistant to normalization until now, tried to distance itself from efforts by other Gulf states.

“On a personal level, I do not wish that there would be a picture of any Arab or Muslim official, or even from the whole world, with the prime minister of the usurping entity, let alone a Kuwaiti official,” Marzouq al-Ghanim, the speaker of the Kuwaiti parliament, stated.

“At the same time, we can not allow anyone to minimize the role of Kuwait’s parliament and government in defending this legitimate and national issue, the Palestinian issue.”

Al-Ghanim gave his support to a regional conference in Kuwait City in November 2017 dedicated to combating normalization with Israel.

In October that year, al-Ghanim demanded that Israeli lawmakers leave the Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in Saint Petersburg, calling them “occupiers and murderers of children.”

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Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.