In Warsaw last week, the Trump administration convened a conference on peace and security in the Middle East. The two-day ministerial did not change the world. But it did highlight significant ways in which the world has changed.
Envoys arrived from more than 60 countries, including 10 Arab nations. The one head of state was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was clearly pleased to be getting together with his neighbors. And they did not seem displeased to be getting together with him.
For this significant change there is a simple explanation: The Arab states and the Jewish state agree, as does the current U.S. administration, that the most serious threat to peace and security in the Middle East is the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Our West European friends, by contrast, are ambivalent — despite Tehran’s facilitation of mass murder by its client, Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad; its continuing development of ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads to targets in Europe or America; its hostage-taking; its attempt to bomb a rally of Iranian dissidents in Paris last summer, its attempt to assassinate a political foe in Denmark last October, and credible Dutch accusations last month of Iranian involvement with four additional assassination and bomb plots since 2015.
The European Union’s chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini, declined to attend the conference. The German foreign ministry’s Niels Annen attended a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in Berlin before proceeding to Warsaw.
Worse, Germany, France and Britain, the EU’s so-called E3, have been attempting to devise a financial mechanism to avoid — or, one might say, undermine — U.S. sanctions on Tehran.
That’s the second significant change that was on display in Warsaw: The fraught state of the trans-Atlantic relationship. Personality plays a role — the Europeans certainly find President Trump’s problematic. But policy differences are hardly incidental. The West Europeans don’t appear to recognize that America’s adversaries are their adversaries as well. Or, if they do, their willingness to burden-share in pursuit of the common defense leaves much to be desired.
East Europeans, with Russian President Vladimir Putin breathing down their necks, have been more willing to accommodate Washington. Poland’s co-hosting of the ministerial underscored that change (especially since Polish-Israeli relations are currently tense due to disagreements over the role Poles played in the Holocaust).
The Arab/Sunni diplomats gathered in Warsaw are probably not, in their heart of hearts, enthusiastic about the exercise of self-determination by the Jewish people in part of its ancient homeland. But no other nation has both the will and the military power to stand up to the Shia mullahs. Israelis have become the strategic partner of the Sunni Arabs by default.
In the past, the United States could be counted on to protect the pragmatic Arab states. President Obama, however, shook their confidence by agreeing with Iran on a nuclear deal which merely delays for a few years Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability. Mr. Obama also admonished them “to share the neighborhood” with a regime whose hostility is obvious and whose expansionist ambitions are undeniable.
Though President Trump has taken a harder line, who knows what the next American election may bring? “We will be back,” former Vice President Joe Biden said at another security conference, this one held in Munich over the weekend.
In theory, increasing Arab-Israeli rapprochement should make it easier to find a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In practice, don’t bet on it. Palestinian officials denounced the Warsaw conference as a “conspiracy aimed at eliminating the Palestinian cause.”
For Hamas, the Palestinian cause is the extermination of Israel. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a master of ambiguity, and savvy enough to understand that any agreement with Israel will be seen as a betrayal and a crime not just by Hamas but also by Tehran and all the many jihadi groups. So long as the Islamic Republic stands a chance of emerging as the regional hegemon, no Palestinian leader can sign a peace treaty with Israel — no matter how beneficial for Palestinians — without painting a bull’s eye on his back.
In Warsaw, both Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir underscored that reality. “Who is supporting Hamas and [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad, and undercutting the Palestinian Authority?” the latter asked. He then answered: “Iran.”
UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan even defended efforts to prevent Tehran from establishing military bases in Syria along the Israeli border. “Every nation has the right to defend itself when it’s challenged by another nation,” he said.
The last time Israelis and Arabs got together to discuss Middle Eastern peace and security was nearly 30 years ago. Conventional wisdom held that the Madrid conference of 1991 was a huge success. Conventional wisdom proved wrong.
The Warsaw conference, by contrast, has been derided by “progressives,” Obama administration loyalists and, of course, spokesmen and apologists for the Islamic Republic. In an editorial, The New York Times called it an “anti-mullah pep rally” and a “bellicose bashing.” Perhaps those appraisals will turn out to have been off the mark, too.
“People in the Middle East have suffered a lot because they have stuck to the past,” Omani Minister of Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi observed in Warsaw. “Now we say, this is a new era, for the future.”
In a region where history and historical grievances have consistently impeded progress, not remaining “stuck to the past” would represent the most significant change of all.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times.