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Analysis: Why the Warsaw summit could matter

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gestures during a joint press conference with the Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz during his visit to Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.
(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

The Middle East summit convening Wednesday night in Warsaw has gotten bad press, but it may turn out to be a landmark event. The bad press stems from the long list of countries that won't be here or, at least, won't be sending senior representatives.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini won't be coming, nor will the foreign ministers of France or Germany. From the Middle East, the Palestinians and Turkey are staying away, and Iran wasn't even invited.

Russia even turned to counter programming, convening a summit in Sochi on Thursday, on split screen with the Warsaw summit where the Turkey's and Iran's presidents will be present. But the trick to this summit is that it can be a historic success even without any of the above.

This summit is shaping up as an excuse for Israeli and Arab Gulf leaders to be together in a public event and to interact with each other in ways they haven't done before. That matters.

If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has public meetings with Gulf foreign ministers--especially from Saudi Arabia--that would be new and path-breaking. Even more so if the interaction kicked off in Warsaw continues with a designated process after the summit.

In my interview with him earlier this week, the Polish ambassador to Israel described six working groups that would come out of the summit. Working groups on which Israelis and Gulf states could serve together.

The process sounds a lot like the multi-laterals of the Madrid process in the 1990's. Except, now it's launched in more favorable geopolitical weather, albeit without truly integrating the Israeli-Palestinian dimension.

Simply put, organizers want to put in place a channel for moving Arab-Israeli normalization forward. They have relevant representatives in place in Warsaw. Yes, they might have liked to see more European bigwigs or Gulf heads of state. But the group assembled is well-placed to make progress. If it wants to do so. And that's the unanswered question heading into the summit.

To what extent will Israelis and Gulf states actually interact publicly? Will meetings still be hush-hush (in which case the summit will not meet expectations)? Or will there be a new, public, precedent-setting dimension?

The Gulf ministers will decide that. And, for that reason, this summit is about them. For weeks, the U.S. and Polish governments have refrained from dubbing it an "anti-Iran" conference, even giving it a long and bland-sounding name (the "Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East") to downplay the Iranian issue.

For this, the organizers have been greeted with dismissive laughs. In a strange way, the organizers are right: The Warsaw summit is not about Iran.

It's about Israel and the Gulf states and the relationships between them. Relationships that may have formed with Iran as backdrop but that could take on dimensions of their own. The Warsaw summit has the potential to move the Middle East in that direction. It may not succeed. But, if it does, the Warsaw summit will be a historic milestone. And much more than the critics expected.

Owen Alterman is i24NEWS’s Senior International Affairs Correspondent.

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