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Analysis

Good prince, bad prince: Why Israelis shouldn’t be shocked by Saudi royal’s rant

Turki bin Faisal often looked like the public face of Riyadh’s covert rapprochement with Jerusalem; then he launched a harangue against normalization

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

In this November 24, 2018, photo, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
In this November 24, 2018, photo, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

In recent years, Saudi Arabia’s Turki al-Faisal seemed to be the good cop, or prince, in the covert but deepening relationship between Jerusalem and Riyadh. While other officials in the kingdom shunned any public contact with people identified with the Zionist entity, he openly met with so many former — and even current — Israeli officials that he could be thought of as the royal family’s informal point man for contacts with Israel.

In May 2014, he appeared on a panel with Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s Military Intelligence directorate. In September 2015, he met with MK Yair Lapid. In February 2016, he was photographed shaking hands with then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon. Two months later, he shared a stage with Yaakov Amidror, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national security adviser. In October 2017, he appeared on a panel with former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy.

But on Sunday, Prince Turki suddenly appeared to have become the bad cop, attacking Israel as an undemocratic and racist apartheid state that lets Palestinians rot in concentration camps for no good reason.

The harangue was all the more surprising given the evident rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia in recent months, and President Donald Trump’s declared conviction, before the US presidential elections, that Riyadh would soon normalize relations with the Jewish state.

But experts say Israelis should not be shocked by His Royal Highness’s hostility. Rather, they say it fits snugly into the way the kingdom is positioning itself vis-a-vis the Middle East.

Turki al-Faisal bin Abdulziz al-Saud, chairman of King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS), at the Manama Dialogue security conference in the Bahraini capital, on December 5, 2020. (Mazen Mahdi / AFP)

Letting loose

The clandestine ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh have become the Middle East’s worst-kept secret, with Israeli planes routinely traversing Saudi airspace and Israeli officials confirming a recent meeting between Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

And in the wake of the so-called Abraham Accords that Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, US and Israeli officials have continued to predict that the establishment of diplomatic ties with the desert kingdom, too, is imminent.

But on Sunday, Prince Turki — the youngest son of former King Faisal and a former head of the Saudi intelligence service — was speaking at a security conference in Manama alongside Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and his Bahraini counterpart, Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, when he let loose on Israel.

Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saudi speaking at the IISS Manama Dialogue, December 6, 2020 (screenshot IISS)

“Israeli governments have arrested thousands of the inhabitants of the lands they are colonizing and incarcerated them in concentration camps under the flimsiest of security accusations — young and old, women and men who are rotting there without recourse or justice,” he said.

He also dismissed the Abraham Accords, saying that peace in the region, and ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, can only be achieved after the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital.

‘His love has never overflowed’

While the comments did not fit the theme of the Israel-Gulf lovefest that ran riot at the conference until that point, it is in line with Turki’s known positions, said Joshua Teitelbaum, an expert on the Arab Gulf at Bar-Ilan University.

“It’s true that Prince Turki held the Israeli file for many years, but he was always very firm that Israel had to accept the Arab Peace Initiative before ties with Israel would be possible,” he said.

We should not be surprised at this speech. Yes, he has met with people over the years, but his love for Israel never overflowed

Prince Turki is a senior member of the royal family, and a former ambassador to the US and UK, but he seems to disagree with the country’s political leadership on the right course of action vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Teitelbaum posited.

“He does not accept the current line of the Saudi government and made it very clear that he thinks Israel is a bad actor that we should not run faster to embrace,” he said.

Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Tel Aviv-based institute for National Security Studies, agreed.

“We should not be surprised at this speech. Yes, he has met with people over the years, but his love for Israel never overflowed,” he said. “Many of the reports claiming that Saudi Arabia has changed and will establish relations tomorrow come from Israel, and much of it is based on wishful thinking.”

Notably in this regard, Turki gave an unprecedented interview to Israeli television almost two years ago — an apparent signal of greater openness. But he also used it to level bitter criticism at the Netanyahu government.

“Israeli public opinion should not be deceived into believing that the Palestinian issue is a dead issue,” he told Israel’s Channel 13 news in the lengthy interview in London. “From the Israeli point of view, Mr. Netanyahu would like us to have a relationship, and then we can fix the Palestinian issue. From the Saudi point of view, it’s the other way around.”

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (R) shakes hands with Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal at the Munich Security Conference on February 14, 2016 (Ariel Harmoni/Defense Ministry)

Balance

Some have suggested that Turki’s speech may have been intended to drive up the price of normalization — a signal that Riyadh won’t normalize without getting something significant out of the deal for itself — but Teitelbaum doubts that bargaining positions were behind Turki’s speech.

The Saudi government is still interested in advancing ties with Israel, but “they don’t need Turki to drive up the price,” Teitelbaum argued. “They are doing it on their own, and they will move ahead when they are offered more than they are currently offered. They’re looking for the Saudi version of the UAE saying they prevented annexation. That could take a long time.”

The comments from the prince stood as a stark counterpoint to those from Bandar bin Sultan, another Saudi prince and ex-top official who recently made headlines with comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan at his palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 2008 (AP/Hassan Ammar)

In an October interview with Al Arabiyah, Prince Bandar, the grandson of King Abdulaziz, launched an unprecedented attack on Palestinian leaders, whom he described as ungrateful “failures.”

Guzansky noted that beyond Bandar’s browbeating of the Palestinians, Riyadh has taken several steps to demonstrate goodwill to Israel, including allowing Israeli planes to cross its airspace and giving tiny Bahrain the green light to sign the Abraham Accords, Guzansky went on.

Turki al-Faisal’s speech, then, can be understood as the kingdom’s effort to “put some balance in their approach, so it doesn’t look like they’re leaning too much toward Israel,” he said.

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