Not-so-secret meeting with Saudis a major step, but don’t say normalization yet

Establishment of full diplomatic ties may need to wait for Biden to get settled in, but Netanyahu’s meeting with crown prince is a significant breakthrough

Raphael Ahren

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

Football fans stand beneath a large banner depicting Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (C) and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) as they attend the World Cup 2022 Asian qualifying match between Palestine and Saudi Arabia in the town of al-Ram in the West Bank on October 15, 2019.  (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)
Football fans stand beneath a large banner depicting Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (C) and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) as they attend the World Cup 2022 Asian qualifying match between Palestine and Saudi Arabia in the town of al-Ram in the West Bank on October 15, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

It doesn’t happen every day that the future king and current de facto ruler of what is arguably the Arab world’s most important country sits down for a chat with the leader of the Jewish state.

Or, to be more precise: It doesn’t happen every day that the press gets to write about such meetings.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s not-so-secret meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Sunday evening indeed took place under the radar. But the significance of the fact that Israeli journalists were allowed to write about it is more than a blip in the history of the Middle East and speaks volumes as to where the relationship may be heading.

Netanyahu often brags about his secret meetings with Arab leaders, but he never provides any details, and his aides refuse to confirm any unpublicized meetings with senior dignitaries in the Gulf he may have had in the past.

It’s quite possible that Netanyahu’s talk with MBS — as the Saudi crown prince is often called — wasn’t his first.

That an unnamed senior Israeli official on Monday confirmed that Netanyahu met the Saudi royal in the Red Sea city of Neom, that the military censor didn’t prevent Israeli reporters from publishing it, that Education Minister Yoav Gallant then hailed the “amazing achievement,” and that two Saudi advisers acknowledged the talks, is a sensation. It indicates a growing willingness on Riyadh’s part to publicize its clandestine ties with Jerusalem.

Still, the establishment of full diplomatic relations does not appear to be imminent. Saudi government sources, speaking to the Wall Street Journal, confirmed the talks had been about Iran and normalization, but said no substantial progress had been made.

“We have supported normalization with Israel for a long time, because we are the authors of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which envisioned complete normalization with Israel,” the kingdom’s foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan, said over the weekend.

“But there is one very important thing that has to happen first, which is a permanent and full peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis, that there is a Palestinian state with dignity within their 1967 borders.”

Speculation abounded on Monday about the subtext of the meeting, which apparently included US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Was it a signal to US President-elect Joe Biden that the recent trend of Arab states normalizing relations with Israel is not tied to the Trump administration and can continue after he takes office? If so, Riyadh would be unlikely to normalize ties with Israel now, or even right after Biden takes office, since that would put a feather in the cap of the outgoing president and could annoy the incoming administration.

Thus, some see the meeting less through the lens of normalization, and ask instead if it was more about a joint effort to demonstrate unity and resolve against Iran.

Merely a psyop aimed at goading Iran into war?

American-Iranian pundit Trita Parsi, who is known to be supportive of the regime in Tehran, wondered on Twitter if the secret visit means that Israel and Saudi Arabia are “preparing an attack against Iran” or whether it is merely a “psyop aimed at goading Iran into war.”

Israeli and US officials have kept their cards close to their chest, merely repeating their mantra that more Arab states will soon join the circle of peace.

“I’m very confident that other nations will join what the Emiratis have done, the Bahrainis have done, the Sudanese have done, and recognize the rightful place of Israel among nations,” Pompeo said Sunday, before heading to Neom for a meeting with the Saudi crown prince — the one Netanyahu is said to have attended.

“They’ll do it because it’s the right thing to do for their nation, because it’ll increase prosperity and security for their country,” the US top diplomat added. “The reality is that now the Gulf states and Israel recognize they have a common threat from Iran.”

US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia John Abizaid, left, and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, second from left, greet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan as they arrive at Neom Bay Airport in Neom, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

Whether the enmity toward the Islamic Republic is enough to lead to a speedy formalization of the longstanding relationship between Jerusalem and Riyadh remains to be seen. It will depend to a significant degree on the course the Biden administration is going to take on Iran.

If the US were to seek to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia may choose to publicly join those urging for a tougher stance vis-a-vis Tehran and present a united Arab-Israeli front against the Islamic Republic.

Personalities, too, will likely play a role. While MBS has long indicated that he is in favor of rapprochement with Israel, his father, King Salman, a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, has so far vetoed normalization. But the current Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques is 84 years old and may decide to give his appointed successor more leeway regarding foreign policy as time goes by.

“I don’t know when they’ll make that decision,” Pompeo said on Sunday when asked in an interview about additional Gulf states normalizing ties with Israel. “Could be today. Could be tomorrow. Could be next week.”

It may end up taking a little longer. But Monday’s Israel-sanctioned, Saudi-confirmed leak shows that the long secret-ish relationship between the Jewish state and the birthplace of Islam is starting to emerge from the shadows.

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