In a choreographed show of rare unity, officials from the United States, Arab states and Israel joined together at a Middle East peace conference Thursday to pledge tough action against Iran, calling that nation a threat to all.
The focus on Iran, however, overshadowed discussion of the still-secret Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that President Trump has long promised — and that may be just how his senior representatives at the forum wanted it, given nettlesome issues that remain.
“You can’t achieve peace and stability in the Middle East without confronting Iran; it’s just not possible,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side.
U.S. officials and Netanyahu took pains to highlight the willingness of Arab countries including Saudi Arabia to work alongside Israel at the two-day conference in Warsaw. Most of the Arab nations do not officially recognize Israel.
The U.S.-sponsored conference, Netanyahu said, was “a historical turning point.”
“An Israeli prime minister and the foreign ministers of the leading Arab countries stood together and spoke with unusual force, clarity and unity against the common threat of the Iranian regime,” he said.
Leaders of the Arab nations were less effusive. Yet they had agreed to attend a meeting that the Palestinian leadership boycotted, a break that many in the past probably would not have taken.
The Trump administration is hoping it can use the shared enmity toward Iran to unite major Arab states and Israel and sideline the Palestinians.
U.S. officials, accusing the Palestinians of being unwilling to compromise, have punished them in recent months by cutting aid and closing their de facto embassy in Washington. The administration also ignored Palestinians’ outrage over Trump’s 2017 decision moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem, which both Palestinians and Israelis claim.
The strategy, officials say, is to push the Palestinians to feel excluded and enable Arab states to pressure Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to accept a U.S. peace plan, one that Trump once vowed would be the “ultimate deal,” ending the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The PA [Palestinian Authority] may not like it, but Arab states will pursue their interests even when the Palestinian leadership opposes,” Dennis Ross, a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East, tweeted from Warsaw. “Case in point: the Warsaw Conference. Arab states had more of an interest in arguing for unity of effort against Iran than boycotting a conference the PA opposed.”
Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy for the Middle East, also used Twitter to gush over the events in Warsaw. “This historic conference is a testament to the truth that a new era has begun,” he wrote.
“The United States will never fail to stand with our ally Israel,” Greenblatt added. “And the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael are coming together in common cause as never before.”
Netanyahu, running in a tough race for reelection April 9, barely mentioned the Palestinians, instead using footage of his participation in the conference to flood Israeli airwaves and social media.
Such enthusiasm was not universally endorsed.
In a remarkable rebuttal, Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal, a former intelligence chief, told an interviewer for an Israeli television broadcast that Netanyahu is “deceiving” his people by attempting to diminish the Palestinian issue.
“From the Israeli point of view, Mr. Netanyahu would like us to have a relationship [first], and then we can fix the Palestinian issue,” Faisal told Channel 13. “From the Saudi point of view, it’s the other way around.”
It was thought to be the first time a Saudi royal had appeared in an interview on Israeli television.
For their part, Palestinian Authority officials maintain the United States will not succeed in driving a wedge between the Palestinian people and major Arab states.
More dissent to the U.S.-promoted front against Iran came from Europe. Many leaders there still favor the 2015 multinational Iran nuclear deal that Trump abandoned and oppose the belligerent U.S. stance toward the Islamic Republic. Some European countries sent low-level delegations to Warsaw to reflect that discordance.
Vice President Mike Pence, leading the high-level U.S. delegation in Warsaw, probably deepened those tensions on Thursday when he accused allies Britain, France and Germany of undermining the administration’s efforts to isolate Iran and of attempting to “break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime."
“The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and join with us,” he said.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, which Greenblatt is drafting with Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, former Trump lawyer David Friedman, has been kept largely under wraps, its unveiling repeatedly delayed as the authors were forced to rewrite sections condemned by Arab leaders.
Kushner on Thursday briefed delegates at the conference, behind closed doors, on the broad outlines of the plan. He did not disclose details. Kushner and the other authors said they preferred to present the plan to higher-level officials, and will travel soon to the Persian Gulf region for consultations, according to a person familiar with their thinking, who spoke on condition on anonymity.
The document is not expected to be released until after Israel’s April election. Pence would say only “later this year.” Israeli news media quoted Kushner as saying in a closed meeting that Israelis and Palestinians will have to compromise.
Netanyahu, accompanying Pence on a visit to the Warsaw Ghetto memorial to Polish Jews who were victims of Nazi rule, said: “I look forward to seeing the plan once it is presented. I know that the Trump administration seeks to ensure the security of Israel for generations.”
Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian Authority official and former peace negotiator, wrote in a column published by several Arab newspapers Thursday that the Trump administration and Israel suffer a “lack of vision.” “Waiting for a ‘Trump deal,’ ” he said, will “foreclose any chance of a political solution in the foreseeable future.”