Saudi Arabia, Bahrain tell Kushner Israel ties will have to wait

Bahrain says it won’t advance normalization until Saudi Arabia makes a move, and Riyadh makes clear that Palestinian statehood must come first, as US adviser wraps up Gulf swing

Jared Kushner speaks next to US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien (R) in front of an El Al plane at the Abu Dhabi airport, following the arrival of the the first-ever Israeli flight to the UAE, on August 31, 2020. (KARIM SAHIB / AFP)
Jared Kushner speaks next to US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien (R) in front of an El Al plane at the Abu Dhabi airport, following the arrival of the the first-ever Israeli flight to the UAE, on August 31, 2020. (KARIM SAHIB / AFP)

The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain appeared to express hesitation about joining a US push for normalization with Israel in talks with top White House adviser Jared Kushner Tuesday.

Kushner flew to Bahrain and then Saudi Arabia with high hopes for a shift in Gulf attitudes toward the Jewish state, a day after leading a US-Israeli delegation to Abu Dhabi to mark the start of talks toward full open diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

In Bahrain, Kushner met with King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, who said stability in the region relied on Saudi Arabia, according to the official Bahrain News Agency — underlining expectations that it will not strike a deal with Israel before the region’s heavyweight acts.

“The King also highlighted the United Arab Emirates’ historic and continued efforts to support the interests and causes of Arab and Islamic nations, and their determined endeavors to reach a just and comprehensive solution that guarantees the Palestinian people their legitimate rights and lasting peace in the region,” a statement carried by the news agency read.

The comments echoed Bahrain’s stance toward US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited Manama last week in an attempt to seize on any momentum created by the UAE announcing last month that it would establish ties with Israel, becoming only the third Arab state to do so.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani (R) hosts US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Manama on August 25, 2020. (Twitter)

Saudi Arabia has said it will not normalize relations until Israel agrees on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, in keeping with the decades-old stance of most Arab nations.

Kushner later met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia’s northwest Neom region, the home of a massive high tech hub being built by the oil giant and reportedly the site of the first open business deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The pair discussed “the need to resume negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides to achieve a just and lasting peace,” according to the Saudi government news agency SPA.

In this May 20, 2017, photo, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, right, walks with Ivanka Trump at the Royal Court Palace, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci,)

They also discussed how to bolster the US-Saudi partnership “in all fields” in order to boost regional and international security and stability.

In June, a verified Twitter account linked to the kingdom’s embassy in Washington said the Saudi council of ministers had agreed to recruit Israeli cybersecurity firm Check Point Software to secure Neom, a $500 billion planned megacity on the kingdom’s west coast. The embassy later denied the claim and distanced itself from the account.

The statements underlined the uphill battle Israel and the US will face in the Gulf as they attempt to push normalization without a peace deal with the Palestinians in hand. Under the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, formulated by Saudi Arabia’s former king Abdullah, Arab states agreed to only forge ties with Israel after an accord is reached with the Palestinians based on the 1967 armistice lines.

The Palestinians have condemned the deal with the UAE as a stab in the back by a major Arab player while they still lack a state of their own.

Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat waves as he boards the plane before leaving Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates September 1, 2020. (Photo by NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)

Abu Dhabi has defended its decision to abandon the 2002 peace initiative and bring a longstanding but secret relationship with Israel into the open, saying Jerusalem agreed to halt plans to annex large swaths of the West Bank as part of the deal.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted the annexation plans remain on the table.

The UAE deal has sparked high hopes that other countries will follow suit. Earlier Tuesday Kushner, who is US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a key architect of the US’s Israel-Palestinian peace plan, told the UAE’s state news agency that he was “100 percent” sure all 22 members of the Arab League could and should gradually follow the United Arab Emirates in normalizing ties with Israel, causing the “vocal minority” that opposes the move to become increasingly isolated in the region.

Kushner predicted that another Arab country could establish diplomatic ties with Israel soon.

“Let’s hope it’s months,” he said when asked whether such a step was foreseeable in months or years. He didn’t name the country.

Speculation in Israel has centered around Oman, which hosted Netanyahu in 2018, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco being open to normalizing ties with Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman on October 26, 2018 (Courtesy)

Last month, Morocco’s prime minister told a group of supporters that he would not normalize ties with Israel, but later  reportedly said he was speaking in a personal capacity.

During a visit to Sudan last week, Pompeo was told by the government that ties with Israel could only be negotiated once power is shifted to an elected body from the current transitional government.

On Monday, Kushner flew with a US-Israeli delegation from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi aboard an El Al plane, passing over Saudi airspace in a flight laden with symbolism.

During the visit, the two countries’ national security advisers, Israel’s Meir Ben-Shabbat and the UAE’s Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, joined Kushner for talks on cooperation between the two highly developed Middle East economies.

Negotiations have centered around cooperation in investment, finance, health, space exploration, civil aviation, foreign policy and tourism and culture.

A security delegation is set to visit the UAE in the coming weeks, but has reportedly been delayed by lingering tensions over Israel’s opposition to US plans to sell super-advanced F-35 fighter jets to the UAE. Israel says the jets would erode its military edge in the region, which the US has pledged to uphold.

Emirati and Israeli officials discuss future cooperation agreements in Abu Dhabi on August 31, 2020 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

But in a sign that normalization was still  moving forward, Israel and the UAE on Tuesday signed their first protocol in banking and finance, according to Netanyahu’s office.

“We will soon announce additional agreements in aviation, tourism, trade and others,” the prime minister in a statement.

Israel also said that the two sides on Tuesday held their first meeting on the “possibility of the mutual opening of embassies,” and that direct commercial flights between the Jewish state and the UAE will likely take off by the end of the year.

“It wouldn’t be a surprise if by the end of 2020 there will be direct flights between Israel and the UAE,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat told the English website of Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned broadcaster.

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