Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was reportedly kept out of the loop about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s secretive trip to the kingdom this week for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
Quoting a Saudi source and a foreign diplomat in Riyadh, Reuters reported Friday that normalization with Israel appeared off the table as long as the Saudi monarch is alive — an analysis also made Thursday by a senior Israeli source cited by Israeli TV.
King Salman, 84, is reported to oppose normalization without the establishment of a Palestinian state, while his son, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, is considered more open to warming ties with Israel.
The diplomat cited by Reuters also suggested that the prospect of normalization was greater under the incoming Biden administration, with the US president-elect having threatened to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over its human rights violations.
“Normalization… is a carrot to get [Biden’s] focus away from other issues, especially human rights,” the diplomat said.
The comments by the Saudi source and diplomat echoed a report Thursday on Israeli television. An unnamed senior Israeli source told Channel 12 news that there would be no progress on normalization as long as King Salman is on the throne.
“Israel understands that there will not be a breakthrough with the Saudis in the near future” because King Salman “takes a diametrically opposite stance” on the matter of normalization with Israel to that of his son, the report said.
Despite that, “cooperation against the joint enemy Iran” will increase, as will bilateral trade between the two nations. The source also said Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince had a “very warm meeting” on Sunday.
The two’s unprecedented talks on Sunday night in the Saudi Red Sea city of Neom, along with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, reportedly included discussions on Iran and normalization.
A Saudi government adviser confirmed the meeting and the trip to The Wall Street Journal, saying that the meeting, which had lasted several hours, focused on Iran and the establishment of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Jerusalem, but did not yield substantial agreements.
Education Minister Yoav Gallant also confirmed the trip, calling it “an amazing achievement.”
However, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan denied that Netanyahu or any other officials from the Jewish state had taken part in a meeting with the crown prince, in a tweet issued several hours after the reports started circulating.
Netanyahu’s office has not commented on the reported trip and meeting, but the premier did not deny that the meeting took place, while making a cryptic statement at the outset of his Likud party’s weekly faction meeting Monday.
“I have not commented on such matters for years and I am not going to start now,” he said when asked directly about the trip by his coalition chief, Likud MK Miki Zohar. “For years I haven’t spared any effort to strengthen Israel and broaden the circle of peace.”
Channel 12 quoted Israeli sources as saying the Saudis were angry that news of the meeting had been leaked. However, the Ynet news site quoted two officials involved in the talks as saying the Saudi crown prince had not objected to the meeting being publicized.
The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan have reached deals to normalize ties with Israel in recent months, though a similar agreement with Saudi Arabia so far has remained out of reach.
Bahrain normalizing ties suggested at least a Saudi acquiescence to the idea, as the island kingdom relies on Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia has also approved flights between Israel and its new Gulf friends passing over its territory.
Israel has long had clandestine ties with Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab states that have strengthened in recent years, as they have confronted a shared threat in Iran.
Agencies contributed to this report.