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Netanyahu invokes 'war' on Iran at Warsaw summit, then quickly backtracks

In now-revised statement, PM's office said Arab states met Israel to 'advance the common interest of war with Iran'
US Vice President Mike Pence, Poland's President Andrzej Duda and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Warsaw summit (AFP)

Benjamin Netanyahu has employed harsh rhetoric against Iran for years, but he went a step further on Wednesday, saying that Arab countries participating in a Middle East conference in Warsaw "are sitting down together with Israel in order to advance the common interest of war with Iran".

The Israeli prime minister's office walked back his comments about two hours later.

In a re-issued statement to the media, Netanyahu's office said the goal of the meetings in Poland was "to advance the common interest of combatting Iran".

The word "war" was removed from the statement without explanation.

Netanyahu made his comments after a meeting with the Omani minister for foreign affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi, on the sidelines of a Middle East conference in Warsaw co-hosted by Poland and the United States.

Washington initially touted the summit as a way to counter Iran's influence in the region, drawing condemnations from Tehran and leading several nations to send lower-ranking officials instead of their top representatives.

Netanyahu is one of the highest-ranking officials in attendance at the summit, alongside foreign ministers and officials from 60 other countries.

A video circulating on social media showed the Israeli prime minister using the word "war" in Hebrew while speaking to reporters in front of an ice rink in the Polish capital.

Criticism of Netanyahu's statement and questions over whether it was the result of a mistranslation from the original Hebrew gained traction online Wednesday.

But some experts and journalists said Netanyahu's comments were blown out of proportion.

"Not sure why everyone's so excited by Netanyahu's war with Iran tweet, whether or not it's a mistranslation," Anshel Pfeffer, a correspondent for the Economist who has written a biography about the Israeli leader, said on Twitter.

"Israel and Iran are at war. Iran swore to destroy Israel since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago and for the last few years they've been shooting at each other in Syria," he added.

Israel's ties to Arab states

The Poland conference aims to address Iran's influence in the Middle East, the Syrian conflict, Yemen’s civil war and Israeli-Palestinian peace, the organisers say.

US Vice President Mike Pence is leading Washington's delegation, which includes US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, who is also Donald Trump's son-in-law.

"We're trying to expand the number of nations who are engaged and have a stake in the future of a peaceful and prosperous Middle East," Brian Hook, the state department's special representative for Iran, told Reuters news agency.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu boasted of the strong ties Israel is building with Arab countries in the region.

"Many are following this [Omani] lead, and may I say, including at this conference," said Netanyahu after his meeting with Alawi.

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Oman hosted the Israeli leader in October and several high-ranking Israeli ministers have also made visits to countries in the Gulf over the last year.

Despite the large showing, a number of high-profile countries did not send their top representatives amid ongoing tension between the US and Europe over Trump's decision to withdraw from a 2015 nuclear deal with the Iranian government.

Germany and France decided not to send their foreign ministers, while the European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, is also not attending because of scheduling issues, an EU official told Reuters.

The one top European official that did show up - at least for the opening session - was UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt, who on Wednesday expressed a desire to see peace in Yemen.

Several million Yemenis face starvation and the country has suffered one of the worst cholera outbreaks in modern times as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - backed by the US - seek to bomb and blockade the country's Houthi rebels into surrender.

"We now have a shortening window of opportunity to turn the ceasefire into a durable path to peace - and stop the world's worst humanitarian crisis," Hunt said, as reported by AFP.

Iran was not invited to the summit and Palestine declined to attend.