Arab officials say Iran issue 'more toxic' than Palestine

Joint participation at Warsaw conference highlights rapprochement between Israel and Arab states determined to stop Iran's expanding regional influence.

LONDON - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office leaked video of Gulf Arab ministers slamming Iran during a closed-door session of a Middle East conference in Warsaw, Israeli media reported Friday.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states which do not recognise Israel sent top diplomats to attend this week's conference alongside Netanyahu, something the prime minister and his US ally have talked up as a new regional axis against Iran.

The Israeli Prime Minister had earlier caused controversy when, in an off-the-cuff interview with Israeli reporters, he appeared to call on participants of the conference to unite around their "common interest of war with Iran". 

The comment was posted on his official Twitter page and later deleted. Although he used the Hebrew word "milchama," or war, his office changed its official translation and said he was referring to a "common interest of combatting Iran."

The Israeli correspondents who travelled with Netanyahu to the two-day conference said that the prime minister had hinted to them during a briefing that his staff had footage of Gulf ministers addressing a session on Iran on Wednesday.

Israel's Maariv newspaper said that the following day, "the prime minister's office posted (and shortly thereafter deleted) a video from the closed introductory panel about Iran."

Netanyahu's office declined to comment. 

On Friday, the Haaretz newspaper ran what it said were leaked clips, in one of which Bahrain's foreign minister is seen saying that Iran poses a "more toxic challenge" to the region than Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.

'More toxic than Palestine'

"We grew up talking about the Palestine-Israel dispute as the most important issue," Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa tells fellow delegates.

"But then, at a later stage, we saw a bigger challenge, more toxic -- in fact the most toxic in our modern history -- which came from the Islamic republic.

"If it wasn't for the toxic money, guns and foot soldiers of the Islamic republic, I think that we would have been much closer today in solving this issue with Israel."

Bahrain is the staunchest Gulf supporter of Saudi Arabia's tough line against Shiite Iran.

The small but strategic kingdom is mostly Shiite, according to unofficial estimates, and its Sunni rulers blame Iran for decades of Shiite-led protests that flared up again in 2011.

Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan said "every nation has the right to defend itself" when asked about Israel's bombing campaign in Syria, where it has frequently attacked what is says are Iranian and Hezbollah targets.

In another clip published by Haaretz, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir accuses Iran of spreading "mischief" throughout the region.

He said Iran supported Islamist groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Palestine in order to undercut the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas.

He also condemned the Islamic Republic for its role in war-torn Syria, accused it of smuggling weapons to its proxies in Gulf states like Bahrain and Kuwait, and said it had attempted to sow chaos in a number of African countries, Indonesia and Thailand.

"Building ballistic missiles and giving them to terrorist organisations is unacceptable and there are resolutions that say Iran should be punished for that," he added.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly accused Iran of providing weapons to Huthi rebels in Yemen who have been battling a Saudi-led intervention force since 2015. Tehran denies the allegation.

Yemen's Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani said his country's participation at the conference was "part of the battle to restore" his internationally-recognised government, after being seated next to Netanyahu in what he said was a "protocol error".

Yemen and Israel have never had diplomatic relations, and Yamani's friendly interaction with Netanyahu drew criticism on social media.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L-R), Minister of Foreign Affairs of Yemen Khaled al-Yamani, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attend the Warsaw Peace and Security in the Middle East conference.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Front L), Minister of Foreign Affairs of Yemen Khaled al-Yamani (C), and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R).

"Protocol error" or "lighthearted moment"?

Yamani was already seated when Netanyahu took his place earlier the same day at the conference. The two nodded at each other and exchanged brief smiles as Netanyahu sat down.

During a part of the session closed to the press, Yamani lent Netanyahu his microphone when the Israeli premier's was not working properly.

US President Donald Trump's Middle East peace envoy Jason Greenblatt hailed the exchange on Twitter, calling it a "lighthearted moment" that could be the sign of "new cooperation" between the Jewish and Arab states.

"Protocol errors are the responsibility of the organisers, as is always the case in international conferences," Yamani wrote on Twitter late Thursday, in response to the criticism.

"The stance of Yemen and President (Abedrabbo Mansour) Hadi on the Palestinian issue and its people and leadership is firm," Yamani insisted.

He said Yemen attended the Warsaw conference not to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "but to mobilise the international community to confront the Iranian expansion in Yemen". 

Yamani added that some parties were attempting to portray the situation in a certain light to further their own political causes, as the Iran-backed Huthi rebels condemned the participation of Hadi's government at the conference.

In a statement, the movement said it rejected all attempts to "normalise ties with the Zionist entity" at the expense of the Palestinian cause.

"Al-Yamani's act of sitting next to Netanyahu reflects the national treachery and moral bankruptcy of the Saudi-led government in Yemen," the statement said.

Unusual clarity

Top officials of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain -- none of which recognise Israel -- also sat down with Netanyahu for dinner Wednesday.

Israel only has diplomatic relations with two Arab states, neighbouring Egypt and Jordan.

Though Saudi Arabia and Israel have no official diplomatic ties, they share a determination to limit the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East.

Netanyahu praised the conference organised by Washington in the Polish capital as a "historical turning point" for the region. He said Israel and Arab states in attendance had stood united against Iran and he hoped that cooperation could extend to other areas.

"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 told reporters on Thursday.

Following the conference and the release of the leaked videos, the Saudi foreign ministry appeared to go into damage control, tweeting that Riyadh remains firmly behind the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative for solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, who currently holds no official government position, had also presented a different picture in an interview broadcast on Israeli television on Wednesday.

In the interview, he accused Netanyahu of deception for claiming that Israeli ties with the wider Arab world can be warmed without the Palestinian issue being solved.

But at the conference in Warsaw, Oman's foreign minister said the coming together of Arab states with their traditional foe Israel signalled a "new era".

"The people of the Middle East suffered a lot because they are stuck to the past. This is a new era for the future and for prosperity for every nation," said Yusuf bin Alawi.

Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, said the US-organised conference aimed to "normalise" the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in line with the staunchly pro-Israel policy adopted by US President Donald Trump.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was in the Black Sea resort of Sochi for talks with his Russian and Turkish counterparts on the future of Syria, dismissed it as an "empty result."