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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
I'm proud of our coverage of this government's plans to overhaul the judiciary, including the political and social discontent that underpins the proposed changes and the intense public backlash against the shakeup.
Your support through The Times of Israel Community helps us continue to keep readers across the world properly informed during this tumultuous time. Have you appreciated our coverage in past months? If so, please join the ToI Community today.
~ Carrie Keller-Lynn, Political Correspondent
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel eleven years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel