Israeli-Saudi ties reportedly set back by fallout from Khashoggi killing

With crown prince weakened and key advisers involved in rapprochement fired, burgeoning relations between the two nations have taken a hit, according to the Wall Street Journal

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 23, 2018. (AP/Amr Nabil)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 23, 2018. (AP/Amr Nabil)

Israel and Saudi Arabia’s path to a closer relationship has been significantly set back by the fallout over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.

According to the report, two top Saudi officials removed from office following international backlash to Khashoggi’s killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul were key figures in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts for warmer ties with the Jewish state.

Their ouster, and the crown prince’s now-weakened position in the kingdom, have both allegedly contributed to diminished contacts since the scandal broke.

Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmad al-Assiri were key counselors to the crown prince. Both were implicated in Khashoggi’s killing.

Khashoggi, a Saudi contributor to the Washington Post, was killed on October 2 shortly after entering the kingdom’s consulate in what Riyadh called a “rogue” operation. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly rejected Turkish demands to extradite suspects connected to the murder of the journalist, a critic of bin Salman.

Despite speculation that the crown prince ordered the hit, the kingdom has strongly denied he was involved. US senators briefed by the CIA have said they are convinced that bin Salman led the action.

Ahmed al-Assiri briefs journalists in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

US senators last Thursday passed a measure that blamed the prince for Khashoggi’s killing and called on Riyadh to “ensure appropriate accountability.” The move was strongly rebuked by the Saudis as interference in the kingdom’s affairs.

Israel and Saudi Arabia have no official relations and the kingdom does not recognize the Jewish state. But recent years have seen a proliferation of reports on burgeoning clandestine ties, including secret meetings between top security officials in both nations, amid a shared concern over Iran’s regional influence and other aligned interests.

With bin Salman and his confidants sidelined, there is reportedly little enthusiasm for risky moves — such as an upgrade of relations with Israel — that could further imperil Saudi leadership.

“Things have definitely cooled off right after Khashoggi’s murder,” a senior Saudi official told the WSJ. “The last thing the kingdom wants is for this to come out now and cause another backlash.”

Negotiations that have slowed down include a planned $100 million investment by the Saudis in Israel tech companies, the report said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks the Government Press Office’s annual New Year’s toast in Jerusalem on December 12, 2018. (Gali Tibbon/AFP)

Qahtani and Assiri were both reportedly closely involved in bids to buy surveillance technology from Israeli companies. The Saudi government’s surveillance and hacking of political rivals and dissidents has come into sharp focus following Khashoggi’s killing.

Numerous claims have surfaced that Herzliya-based NSO Group sold the kingdom surveillance software that helped lead to the assassination. The company has denied the accusations.

Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has emerged as one of the sole defenders of Riyadh in the wake of Khashoggi’s death and the international outrage it has elicited, saying on several occasions that though the murder was “horrific,” the kingdom’s stability was crucial for the region.

A recent report by the Qatari-funded Middle East Eye website indicated that the Khashoggi fallout could actually contribute to closer relations between the two nations.

It said bin Salman was considering a public, Camp David-style meeting with Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump in a grand gesture intended to help rehabilitate the crown prince’s image. According to Middle East Eye, MBS hopes a public meeting with Netanyahu could help reframe him as a Middle East peacemaker and paper over international criticism.

The report quoted unnamed Saudi sources and could not be independently confirmed.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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