Deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia is ‘absolutely possible,’ says ex-Mossad chief

Yossi Cohen, citing ‘personal knowledge’ of potential dealings, strikes optimistic note, as senior Netanyahu aides said to be headed for Washington

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

File - Former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen speaks at a conference of the Makor Rishon newspaper at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, February 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/ File)
File - Former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen speaks at a conference of the Makor Rishon newspaper at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, February 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/ File)

Against a backdrop of measured optimism from Jerusalem over the chances of a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen said Sunday that such an agreement was “absolutely possible.”

Speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies, Cohen — Israel’s top spy from 2016-2021 — said, “in my opinion – and here I am leaning on personal knowledge on the topic — it is absolutely possible.”

“There is indeed in the Middle East a new era in which brave leaders… know how to create normalization,” he added.

There has been a flurry of reports that US-brokered talks between Jerusalem and Riyadh on starting direct flights for Hajj pilgrims are in advanced stages.

A flight deal could have the potential to lead to a wider normalization deal — which has long been sought by Israel but largely rejected by the Saudis.

In exchange for full normalization with Israel, Saudis are said to be demanding that the White House unfreeze some Trump-era weapons deals that were frozen when US President Joe Biden took office, and are also seeking a defense treaty with the US, similar to NATO, as well as the US stamp of approval for a civilian nuclear program.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes US President Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)

An unsourced Channel 12 report last week claimed that Washington and Riyadh are both seeking to pressure Israel into restarting diplomatic talks with the Palestinians that will lead to a “separation,” and the US is also demanding that Netanyahu pull his government’s controversial judicial overhaul plan in exchange for normalization with Riyadh.

At the same INSS event, Foreign Ministry Director-General Ronen Levy said that, while ties with Riyadh are extremely important, “we must not dismiss other countries that have the potential for normalization before Saudi Arabia.”

He added that he hopes that there would deals reached with such states in the coming months.

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi will travel to meet senior officials in Washington DC this week, according to a US media report.

Dermer and Hanegbi are expected to meet with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and other top-level officials from the White House and State Department to discuss the Iranian nuclear threat and peace prospects with Saudi Arabia, four Israeli and US officials told the Axios news site.

An official in the Prime Minister’s Office said dates have not been finalized, while a White House National Security Council spokesperson told the site there was nothing to confirm.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promises Muslim voters that he will ensure that there are direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia, March 23, 2021. (Screen capture/File)

Both Hanegbi and Dermer are considered close confidants of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The premier’s reported attempts to angle for a White House invitation for himself have fallen flat amid US criticism of the government’s plans to overhaul Israel’s judiciary and ramp up settlement building.

Hanegbi denied that there had been any direct conversations between Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in recent months, but said a normalization deal was possible.

“There is in Saudi Arabia a leader that the world has never seen before, a man who took his country 180 degrees in a different direction, a bold and revolutionary leader,” Hanegbi said. “If he thinks that it is possible to reach normalization with Israel, it will happen. I believe there is a chance this will happen.”

In a historic move last year, Saudi Arabia announced that it opened its airspace to all civilian overflights, hours before Biden became the first US leader to directly fly from Israel to the Gulf nation.

Last week, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen touted the possibility of normalization with Saudi Arabia within six months, during an interview with Channel 12’s Meet the Press.

Cohen cited Jerusalem and Riyadh’s joint interests — notably preventing Iran from creating a nuclear bomb — as a reason to be hopeful for a deal.

File: Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Shlomi Amsalem / GPO)

Saudi Arabia’s decision in March to renew ties with Iran, after over half a decade, was seen by some as a setback for normalization between the kingdom and Israel.

But the Biden administration has continued to work on striking such a deal in recent months, with Sullivan calling it a “national security interest” earlier this month.

Shortly after those comments, Sullivan flew to Riyadh, where he met with bin Salman and raised the issue. He was accompanied by senior White House aides Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein, who subsequently traveled to Jerusalem to brief Netanyahu on the status of the endeavor.

Levy also spoke with administration officials about a potential Saudi deal during his trip to Washington last week.

Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia in November 2020 to meet with bin Salman, the first publicly reported meeting between the two. Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations, but clandestine ties have strengthened in recent years, due to the Iranian threat.

Emanuel Fabian, Jacob Magid, and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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