1. Meet and leak: A not-so-secret trip by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his spy chief Yossi Cohen to Neom, Saudi Arabia, has managed to shuffle the regional deck somewhat, throwing the political scene even further into a tizzy as the nation’s prognosticators and pundits try to speculate on what it may mean.
- The Saudi story dominated the news agenda from the moment the first rumors began to pop up on Twitter, thanks to Haaretz’s eagle-eyed flight tracker Avi Scharf, until the censor allowed the press to report on the apparent visit, which has still not been confirmed by official channels, unless one counts the less than subtle avalanche of winks and nods emanating from all corners.
- Education Minister Yoav Gallant’s comments to Army Radio on the visit, with offhand congratulations for the “pseudo-official trip,” is enough to be read by even the gray lady as a pseudo-confirmation.
- Many Israeli outlets also pick up a tweet by Netanyahu social media aide Topaz Luk saying that “Gantz is playing politics while Netanyahu makes peace” as confirmation as well. And there’s the fact that Israelis are pointedly not denying the trip.
- There are no “reportedlys” on the front page headlines on the visit, and lest one thought the historic meeting were the only thing on Israelis minds, it’s not even the lead story in some print papers, which mostly focus instead on the collapsing government coalition. Somewhat interestingly, many of the papers that do lead with the news are ultra-Orthodox and Arab.
- And then there is pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom, which telegraphs its breathlessness with the front page headline “Israeli prime minister in Saudi Arabia,”’ alongside pictures of Netanyahu and Saudi Crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman grinning ear to ear.
- “History in the kingdom,” reads the paper’s subheadline, making it almost seem as if Riyadh had been begging Netanyahu to visit.
- Fellow tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth, in contrast, runs the top headline “Secret meeting in Saudi Arabia,” accompanied by pictures of the two principals throwing cagy looks.
- Also contrasting with Israel Hayom, which plays up the countries’ united front against Iran, Yedioth highlights the fact that the trip was made “behind the backs” of Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, and that “due to the king’s opposition, establishing official ties is still not on the table.”
- At least they both manage to get “Saudi” into the headline. Ultra-Orthodox Yated Neeman runs the front page headline “Netanyahu, Pompeo and the crown prince: Secret meet in seaside city.”
2. Normalization? Not so fast. Several news sites run quotes from unnamed officials saying that it’s too early to talk normalization.
- A Saudi government adviser quoted by the Wall Street Journal says that while the sides discussed Iran and normalization, no breakthroughs were made.
- The Kan public broadcaster and Channel 12 both quote an unnamed senior Israeli official Monday evening as saying that no breakthrough is expected anytime soon.
- “Despite the efforts by Netanyahu and Pompeo to convince them, the Saudis made clear that, at the moment, they are not ready to take the extra step. That’s why no additional [normalization] ceremony can be expected in the near future,” an official tells Channel 12.
- Arabic-language al-Quds runs a lead headline saying that Bin Salman refuses to normalize before the resolution of the Palestinian issue based on a two-state solution.
- Shimrit Meir writes in Yedioth Ahronoth that it would be smart of the Saudis to show Washington that it’s buddy-buddy with Israel to help get it out of the pariah muck once Joe Biden becomes president. “But they are not ready. Not even for a joint picture. With all due respect to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest places, is the real deal, and this is a historic step that will take a bit more time.”
3. Message in a meeting: Israel Hayom also notes that normalization is not on the table yet, and so the paper, which still likely wants to present the trip as a win, focuses on the countries’ united opposition to Iran (and Joe Biden, in its telling) instead.
- “According to high-ranking officials involved in the talks, the Saudis are certain that Biden and his people have already prepared a plan for a new nuclear agreement with the Iranians and want to minimize damage. The officials also said that Riyadh saw Israel as a key ally on the Iranian issue,” the paper reports.
- Richard Goldberg from the conservative think tank Foundation of Defense of Democracies says in Mosaic that the Saudis will need to do more than take baby steps if it wants to get in Washington’s good graces: “Bin Salman needs a formal agreement with Israel—or at least an institutionalized process for reaching an agreement—to complicate anti-Saudi initiatives in Washington.”
- In Yedioth, Smadar Peri writes that the meeting wasn’t intended to do anything but send some messages east and west, noting that Netanyahu and Bin Salman could have just picked up the phone. “The meeting between Netanyahu and Bin Salman was not their first. The head of the Mossad is practically a citizen of Saudi Arabia. But the heap of accounts from the Saudis and and Israelis signal that the fact of the meeting was the point itself, and not what was said in it. … the meeting was meant to send a threatening message to Iran, [and] a message of warning to the new government in Washington.”
- The Economist writes that “Israel and the Saudis seem to have put the president-elect on notice that they intend to pool their considerable diplomatic and political capital in Washington to oppose major changes in America’s Middle East policy. That is something of an achievement for a meeting that, officially at least, never took place.”
4. History uncensored: While being cautious about getting overly excited over the development, several journalists note that there is no getting around the fact that the meeting, and the fact that the censor lifted a gag on it, is a milestone.
- “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,” writes ToI’s Raphael Ahren.
- Israel Hayom’s Daniel Siryoti writes, “The leaks on the reported meeting between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and the fact that the military censorship gave them a green light for publication – suggest that there has been a major breakthrough in relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh. It could mean that a peace deal is in the offing or at the very least a normalization agreement. Such a development, whether in the form of a full-fledged peace treaty or an end to mutual hostility as was the case with Sudan, would transform the geopolitical dynamics in the region.”
- Kan’s Roi Kais, while noting that it’s too early to know if normalization is around the corner, writes that “regarding normalization, the fact of the meeting itself is a step up. … The normalizations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain would not have happened without Saudi Arabia’s blessing, and at the same time the Saudis already allow Israeli planes to use its airspace, a step toward normalization in every sense.”
- “Sometimes you need to say the obvious,” tweets Walla’s Barak Ravid. “This is huge drama! There have been meetings like this in the past that were heavily gagged by the censor. Israelis, Americans and most of all the Saudis knew this would be published. The diplomatic progress is huge, a signal to Iran and a message to the Biden administration.”
5. Coalition of the unwilling: Yedioth’s Nahum Barnea, however, writes that the Saudis asked Netanyahu to be discreet, as he has in the past, but “Netanyahu this time acted differently, for reasons more connected to the personal affairs hounding him than diplomatic considerations.”
- Indeed, much of the press sees the Saudi story as a sidebar to a battle going on within the coalition between Netanyahu and Gantz.
- The frayed ties between the two are seen being stretched to the breaking point in a marathon meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, during which Netanyahu tried to take a plan to open schools off the agenda, angering his partners.
- “Why did we hold a meeting if there are no decisions? We sat for three hours and heard briefings, and now it’s being taken off [the agenda]. This is going nowhere. It’s a shame we didn’t make preparations ahead of time. These discussions can’t go on like this. I’m sorry to say this,” Gantz is quoted in Hebrew-language press telling Netanyahu as the meeting reportedly descended into a shouting match.
- The decision by Shas leader Aryeh Deri to enter the fray and accuse Gantz of breaking the deal by launching a panel to investigate the submarine scandal is also seen as a sign the coalition is kicking the bucket.
- “Among coalition parties the assessment that the government will be dismantled and Likud and Blue and White will divorce is growing. The messages heard from Netanyahu, Gantz and Deri leave no room for doubt,” reports Yedioth.
- Speaking to Army Radio, Blue and White minister Pnina Tamano-Shatta accuses Likud of “galloping toward elections not doing a thing to resolve this crisis.”
- With Yesh Atid pushing yet another no-confidence motion, and trying to convince Blue and White to rally behind it, Kan reports that Gantz is thinking of toppling the government with his own no-confidence vote to block Yair Lapid.
- While it says Gantz hasn’t made up its mind, it quotes him saying he is sure that elections are on the way: “I don’t see the issue of the way the government is being managed changing and so we are on the way to elections.”
- Channel 13 reports that Blue and White itself is being torn asunder by the coalition crisis, reporting that one lawmaker from the party told it that if Gantz sticks by Netanyahu without the budget impasse being solved, the party will completely collapse.
- But Israel Hayom’s Mati Tuchfeld, while getting in some potshots at Gantz for “playing childish political games, while Netanyahu is cultivating historically significant diplomatic relationships across the globe,” also thinks the two will try to pull back from the brink.
- “For now, it seems, even after the events of the past two days and the bitter exchange of words, both Gantz and Netanyahu don’t want an election at the present juncture – each for his own reasons. Regardless, both are fervently positioning themselves for something to go wrong and for elections to be called for late January,” he writes.
- Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer also says that talk of early elections may be, um, early: “The Netanyahu-Gantz coalition may be crumbling, but an early election is far from a foregone conclusion. Netanyahu is loath to launch a campaign when Likud is still languishing in the polls, and his prospects of boosting its electoral fortunes in the next few months are so uncertain.”