Ex-national security adviser praises Saudi crown prince

Yaakov Nagel says Mohammed bin Salman leading kingdom ‘to the right place,’ but adds Riyadh unlikely to formalize ties with Israel before Palestinian peace deal reached

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Former national security adviser Yaacov Nagel in Tel Aviv, March 29, 2017. (Flash 90)
Former national security adviser Yaacov Nagel in Tel Aviv, March 29, 2017. (Flash 90)

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is leading his country “to the right place,” Israel’s former national security adviser said Wednesday, in a rare public expression of praise for an Arab leader.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Nagel said the powers that be in Riyadh would like to publicize their clandestine ties with the Jewish state but are unlikely to do so before Israelis and Palestinians achieve a peace deal.

Addressing journalists in Jerusalem, Nagel, who served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security director from January 2016 until May 2017, said there are currently four main camps fighting for dominance in the Middle East: moderate Sunni states, the Muslim Brotherhood, Shiite Iran and radical Sunni jihadists.

“Saudi Arabia is still struggling if they are in the moderate Sunni camp or if they belong to the Muslim Brotherhood or if they are both. It depends who you’re asking,” Nagel said, speaking in English.

Nagel then said he predicted Mohammed bin Salman’s ascent two years ago, long before he was surprisingly appointed crown prince in June of 2017. “I’m glad that I was right,” he said. “He is taking Saudi Arabia to the right place, but I still think he has many challenges much bigger than the Palestinians or Israel.”

Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, in Moscow’s Kremlin, Russia, on May 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, Pool)

The crown prince, who is also defense minister, is said to be responsible for the kingdom’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy, especially against Iran, its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah and the Tehran-backed Houthis in Yemen. He has also taken on domestic foes, rounding up members of the royal family accused of corruption.

Nagel’s comment in praise of MBS, as he is widely known, came against the background of increased speculation over Israeli-Saudi cooperation. Earlier this week, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz appeared to confirm clandestine ties with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. “We respect the wishes of the other side when contacts are developing, whether it is with Saudi Arabia or other Arab or Muslim countries,” he said.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot gave an interview with the Saudi-owned newspaper Elaph, in which he offered to share intelligence with Riyadh to thwart Iran, an enemy Israel and Saudi Arabia have in common.

But Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on Monday denied any ties between the kingdom and Israel. He did, however, indicate that bilateral relations could be established after the successful conclusion of an Israeli-Palestinian final-status agreement based on the Arab Peace Initiative.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Adviser Yaakov Nagel (R) at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 18, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Nagel, during a briefing organized by The Israel Project, said the Saudis don’t really care about the parameters of a peace deal. “They have a PR problem,” he said. For Riyadh, it would be sufficient if Israelis and Palestinians took a poem by Nathan Alterman, signed it at the bottom and called it a peace deal, he joked.

“They just have to say there’s an agreement between Israel and Palestine. They don’t care, they don’t give a damn what will be the agreement,” Nagel said. “They don’t like [the Palestinians] more than us or less than us. They need to say that there is an agreement in order to take next steps [toward normalization]. So this is still an obstacle.”

Under the Arab Peace Initiative, which was first proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and has since been endorsed by the entire Muslim world, all Arab and Islamic states would establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel after the successful conclusion of the peace process with the Palestinians.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas promotes the Arab Peace Initiative during a speech at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa in Jordan, May 26, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Jim Young)

“Everyone knows that the Arab Peace Initiative doesn’t have any meaning. There are things inside that don’t hold water,” said Nagel, who came to the National Security Council after a long career as an engineer in the Defense Ministry.

Asked if Israel can bypass the Palestinians and normalize relations with Saudi Arabia without a peace deal, he replied: “I am sure that they want it. Because we have the same interests.”

However, public opinion in the kingdom makes that very unlikely, he allowed. On the other hand, he noted that leaders in the Arab world surprised the world several times in recent weeks. “Maybe they’ll surprise us again,” he said.

On Thursday, Netanyahu hailed the “fruitful cooperation” with Arab states, arguing that the current covert ties will eventually become public and contribute to peace.

On Tuesday, at an event marking Egypt-Israel relations, Netanyahu had identified public opinion as the main reason for the absence for formal ties between Israel and the Sunni Arab states.

“The greatest obstacle to the expansion of peace today is not found in the leaders of the countries around us. The obstacle is public opinion on the Arab street, public opinion that has been brainwashed for years by a distorted and misleading presentation of the State of Israel,” he said Tuesday in the Knesset.

“I see changes, the budding of this change, in public opinion — I’m not talking about the leaders — in the Arab space,” he went on. “We see certain changes in certain parts of public opinion in the Middle East. I think that this is something that should be encouraged and developed in the region, because in the end it is something that will radiate inward.”

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