Whenever an Israeli prime minister attends a large international gathering where Arab representatives also participate, speculation swirls about whose hand he will shake, and whether there will be meetings – discreet or public – on the sidelines.
This was as true when then-prime minister Ehud Olmert went to Paris in 2008 for what French president NICOLAS Sarkozy hoped would be the launch of a new Mediterranean forum, as it was in 2015 when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to the same city for a climate change conference, and again last November in Paris to take part in ceremonies commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
The same, too, is true today, with Netanyahu in Warsaw to take part in the US-Polish sponsored meeting on Mideast peace and security.
Representatives of some 60 states are on hand for the meeting, which was originally touted as a conference to try and thwart Iranian designs in the Mideast, but which – to make it more palatable to some Europeans – morphed over the last few days into a summit to deal with a whole basket of Mideast problems, from Syria, to Yemen, to Israel and the Palestinians. Among those Arab representatives on hand include the foreign ministers of Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, UAE, Oman Kuwait and Morocco.
No sooner had Netanyahu landed than reports began to emerge that he would be meeting the foreign ministers of Morocco and Bahrain. And although those meetings have not yet occurred, Netanyahu did meet publicly with Oman Foreign Minister Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah.
Last October Oman was the first country to come out publicly with its ties with Israel, when Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said made public a visit by Netanyahu.
While public meetings with any Arab foreign minister is a coup for Netanyahu, especially just two months before elections, there is significance merely in the fact that so many Arab states have decided to attend the conference, the first Mideast conference attended by Israel and some Arab countries since Anapolis in 2008.
What makes the very presence of Arab ministers in Warsaw significant, even if they do not shake hands with Netanyahu in front of whirling cameras, is that the Palestinians asked them not to come.
PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat said last week that the Warsaw conference “is an attempt at bypassing the Arab Peace Initiative [from 2002] and destroying the Palestinian national project.”
Fatah spokesman Osama Qawasmeh went even farther and said that any Arab leader who meets with Netanyahu at the Warsaw conference would be “stabbing Jerusalem and our Palestinian people.” The Palestinians, he said, are opposed to any form of normalization “with the Israeli occupation entity because that would be a free gift to Tel Aviv.”
And, of course, some Arab states did not attend. Lebanon is not there, nor – of course – are Syria or Iraq.
But, despite the Palestinian protestations, many Arab countries did show up, and some – like Oman – were willing to go public with the meetings with Netanyahu. And what this shows is that much of the Arab world is no longer comfortable in handing veto power to the Palestinians over their ties with Israel, which they feel could be very beneficial both in terms of security and economics.
The Arabs states who went to Warsaw did so to talk about Iran's aggression in the region. They went because stopping Iran is in their interests, because they feel Israel can help them do it, and because they want to remain on US President Donald Trump's good side, despite the Palestinian boycott of the American administration.
Netanyahu, who has been involved in quiet contacts with various Arab states for years, has stressed that under the radar cooperation with the Arab countries is happening in a way no one thought it would – without any diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
The long-held assumption that the Arab world would not deal with Israel until the Palestinian issue is solved has proven empty. In order to deal with the common enemy of Iran and radical Islamic terror, these countries have shown an interest in dealing with Israel even though there is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians to speak of.
That many Arab countries went to Warsaw – even if it does not result in a group photo of Netanyahu shaking hands with all the Arab representatives – shows that these countries are unwilling to let the Palestinians hold their own interests hostage.
Diplomacy is not an all or nothing proposition.
Ties with the Arab world will not be – as Jerusalem would like – public and even semi-normal until there is at the very least a modicum of a diplomatic process with the Palestinians. But neither will any and all ties between the Arab world and Israel be conditioned on the establishment of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital, as the Palestinians would like.
There is a middle ground, and the participation of more than 10 Arab states at the Warsaw conference – despite Palestinian objections – is a good indication of what that middle ground looks like.