Controversy transpired following the publication of a picture showing Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani sitting next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Middle East conference held Feb. 13-14 in Warsaw, Poland.
Although many Arabs criticized the Yemeni diplomat for being photographed next to the Israeli premier, some expressed support — not necessarily for the love of Israel, but rather to spite Iran and its wings in the region, particularly since the Warsaw conference’s most prominent aim is to counter Iranian influence.
The United States announced in mid-January that it would host the ministerial conference in Warsaw to promote the future of peace and security in the Middle East. All Palestinian factions boycotted the meeting, while 11 out of 22 Arab countries attended. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the conference was to focus on Iran's influence and terror in the region.
The conference also tackled the developing US plan to solve the Palestinian-Israeli issue, commonly referenced in the Arabic press as "the deal of the century."
The Israeli media praised the Warsaw conference, which Netanyahu called “a historic turning point.”
Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi described it as “a new and important vision for the future.”
Yamani stressed in a press statement following the conference the “common points between the two countries [Yemen and Israel] to confront the Iranian threat.”
Meanwhile, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa spoke about the Warsaw conference in a closed meeting, saying, “Confronting the Iranian threat is more serious than the Palestinian cause.”
Following the Warsaw conference, five Iraqi factions — the Popular Mobilization Units, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Badr Organization, Al-Nujaba and the Hezbollah Brigades — published a document Feb. 17 stating that “anyone who travels to or communicates with Israel would be supporting its criminal behavior.” The document also stated, “Anyone who deals with Israel would be spying and betraying the homeland.”
Meanwhile, leader of Yemen’s Ansar Allah (Houthis) Abdul Malik al-Houthi called for protests against any outcome of the Warsaw conference. Thousands of people from a number of Yemeni provinces answered the call Feb. 17.
Observers believe that while Israel emerged victorious from the conference, Iran also benefited politically by mobilizing its allies on several levels.
Meanwhile, the Arab participants — including Yemen, which was represented by Yamani — did not gain any fruitful results from the conference. On the contrary, Arab states were met with a flood of popular criticism. Some ministers rushed to justify their positions following the conference, Yamani included, saying that meetings with Israeli officials only occur under the dome of the United States and the Security Council, denouncing the popular focus on his seat next to an Israeli official in Warsaw.
Undersecretary of the Yemeni Ministry of Information Fayyad al-Numan told Al-Monitor, “The Houthi militias’ attempt to exploit Yamani’s picture in the conference only serves their terrorist projects and their objective of lighting up the fighting fronts in Yemen.”
He pointed out that “Yemen’s support of the Palestinian cause still stands, and no Iranian tool working to create chaos and terrorism in the Arab region can change it.”
Numan added, “The official position of the Yemeni government was clear when it took part in the Warsaw conference in order to introduce the Yemeni cause and mobilize global support to save the Yemeni people from this [war], caused by the Iran-backed Houthis. This was completely unlike the relationship that the Houthis have with the Zionist entity, which even led to giving up Yemeni artifacts.” He accused Houthis of working with Israel to allow a Jewish Yemeni family to immigrate in March 2016 to Israel carrying an old manuscript of the Torah, which it handed over to Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, Saudi support for the UN-recongized government continues, as does Iran's indirect support for the Houthis, while millions of civilians are living on the verge of famine.
“There needs to be an international alliance to curb Iran's terrorist project in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon,” Numan said, adding, “The [popular] focus on Yemen [at Warsaw] was only by the Iran-controlled media in order to serve the Houthis’ coup attempts in Yemen. It is a response to Iran’s failure in Yemen given the intervention of the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia.”
Observers believe that the Yemeni government’s official position on the Warsaw conference seems vague; while it formed with Israel what seemed to be an alliance in Warsaw, it still rejects normalization.
Former Yemeni Foreign Minister and presidential adviser Abdulmalik al-Mekhlafi tweeted Feb. 14, “Normalization or the suspicion of normalization with the Zionist enemy in any way is contrary to all our people’s principles, history and constitution.”
However, no official statement was issued by the Yemeni government on the subject of normalizing ties with Israel after the Warsaw conference.
On the other hand, a Yemeni political source speaking on the condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor, “A sharp dispute broke out in the office of the Yemeni presidency between those who supported and those who rejected the Warsaw conference. But President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi insisted that Yemen take part, especially since the Saudi government had advised him of the importance of Yemen participating in the conference.”
Ali al-Qahhoum, a member of the Houthis’ political bureau, told Al-Monitor, “[Participating] in the Warsaw conference shows open conspiracy and normalization with the Zionist entity, aiming to quash the Palestinian cause." He added, “The Warsaw conference created a standstill on the US-Israeli front to subjugate the Arab peoples and bring them back under the US wing. It represents a conspiracy against Islam and Arab and Islamic issues.”
Qahhoum said that “the Warsaw conference represented a scandal for Arab regimes.” He described Yamani as “a spy and a traitor who sat next to the head of the Zionist entity,” denouncing his “representation of Yemen.”
Qahhoum said it was a "US-Zionist aggression par excellence, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are only tools to implement the US project in Yemen and the region.”
The Houthis’ discontent with the Warsaw conference was interpreted by popular mobilization of what they saw as opening the fighting fronts against those working for the United States and Israel, in reference to the government of President Hadi.
They also started “a trial in absentia for those accused of treason and conspiracy with the Israeli entity,” according to Houthis, namely President Hadi, Prime Minister Moin Abdul Malik and Yamani.
For his part, Abdul Salam Mohammed — head of Abaad Studies and Research Center, which is based in Sanaa — told Al-Monitor, “Popular reactions in Yemen to the Warsaw conference revolved around the fear of focusing on normalization [with Israel] and forgetting about the main issue of Iran's interventions,” pointing out that “those who benefited the most from Yamani being seated next to Netanyahu were the Houthis who claim that their war in Yemen is against the United States and Israel.”
He said, “This huge mistake that Yamani made by sitting next to Netanyahu damaged the status of the legitimate government internally, paving the way for Houthis to recruit thousands of Yemenis.”
Mohammed noted, “Some Arab regimes, along with Israel, want to use the fear of the Iranian intervention to quash the Palestinian cause completely. They want to achieve normalization with Israel in exchange for confronting Iran, without giving Palestinians anything in return. This action will be met with popular discontent, which Iran will be able to exploit the most.”
Mohammed said, “Yamani saw that this openness serves the Yemeni issue externally, but in fact, it harms [the issue] on the popular level at home.”
The Warsaw conference concluded with Israel believing it would fight Iran with Arab states, with Netanyahu stating that the conference constituted an opportunity to work with Arabs against Iran. The Arabs, meanwhile, believed they would fight Iran with Israel as shown by the statements of Arab leaders, including the Bahraini foreign minister.
There are several scenarios in the foreseeable future. First, the Palestinian cause will be quashed once and for all if Israel succeeds in normalization with the rest of the Arab regimes, as Arab states would give up the right of return and their recognition of the 1967 borders. Thus, a new Middle East led by Israel would emerge.
A second scenario suggests the region may be shared between Israel and Iran.
The most unlikely scenario, however, would be for a unified Arab project to come to life and limit the action of both Tel Aviv and Tehran in the region.
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