Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in an interview published Monday, recognized Israel’s right to exist and extolled the prospect of future diplomatic relations between his kingdom and the Jewish state.
In an extensive interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Prince Mohammed laid out his vision for the future of the Middle East, including the possibility of cooperation with Israel.
Asked whether he believes “the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland,” he replied: “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.”
However, in keeping with the terms of his kingdom’s regional peace proposal, the Saudi crown prince added that an agreement with the Palestinians was a prerequisite to formal relations. “But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations,” he said.
Did he have “no religious-based objection to the existence of Israel?” he was further asked. To which the crown prince replied: “We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people. This is what we have. We don’t have any objection against any other people.”
Asked about anti-Semitism in Saudi Arabia, he said: “Our country doesn’t have a problem with Jews. Our Prophet Muhammad married a Jewish woman. Not just a friend — he married her. Our prophet, his neighbors were Jewish. You will find a lot of Jews in Saudi Arabia coming from America, coming from Europe. There are no problems between Christian and Muslims and Jews. We have problems like you would find anywhere in the world, among some people. But the normal sort of problems.”
Israel and Saudi Arabia have no official relations and the kingdom does not recognize the Jewish state. Israel has hinted at clandestine ties with Saudi Arabia in recent years, stressing the two countries share an interest in countering Iran. The rumors of covert relations have been denied by Saudi officials. Still, a Saudi general visited Jerusalem in 2016 and met with Israeli lawmakers, and Saudi officials have met with Israeli officials on several occasions in public; Saudi Arabia also last month allowed Air India to fly to and from Tel Aviv via its airspace.
Discussing whether a shared concern over Iran was bringing Israel and Saudi Arabia together, he said: “Israel is a big economy compared to their size and it’s a growing economy, and of course there are a lot of interests we share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and countries like Egypt and Jordan.”
Salman also discussed the threat to the Middle East he said was posed by Iran, even saying that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, “makes Hitler look good.”
“Hitler didn’t do what the supreme leader is trying to do. Hitler tried to conquer Europe. This is bad,” he explained. “But the supreme leader is trying to conquer the world. He believes he owns the world. They are both evil guys. He is the Hitler of the Middle East. In the 1920s and 1930s, no one saw Hitler as a danger. Only a few people. Until it happened. We don’t want to see what happened in Europe happen in the Middle East. We want to stop this through political moves, economic moves, intelligence moves. We want to avoid war.”
Asked about the differences in how former US president Barack Obama and his successor, Donald Trump, chose to deal with the Iranian threat, Salman said that although the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran aimed to curb the Islamic Republic’s fanaticism, it included risks his country could not afford to take.
“President Obama believed that if he gave Iran opportunities to open up, it would change,” Salman explained. “But with a regime based on this ideology, it will not open up soon. Sixty percent of the Iranian economy is controlled by the Revolutionary Guard. The economic benefits of the Iran nuclear deal are not going to the people.
“They took $150 billion after the deal — can you please name one housing project they built with this money? One park? One industrial zone? Can you name for me the highway that they built? I advise them — please show us something that you’re building a highway with $150 billion,” he said. “For Saudi Arabia, there is a 0.1 percent chance that this deal would work to change the country. For President Obama it was 50 percent. But even if there’s a 50 percent chance that it would work, we can’t risk it. The other 50 percent is war. We have to go to a scenario where there is no war.”
In a major Saudi shakeup last year, Prince Mohammed pushed aside his older and more experienced cousin to become first in line to his father’s throne, setting himself up to control Saudi policy for decades to come.
The Saudis are working aggressively to change perceptions. They’ve cast themselves as essential partners against Islamist extremist groups and, especially since Trump’s maiden overseas voyage last year, touted their lavish purchases of high-tech goods from job-creating American companies. In Yemen, the kingdom says it is improving military targeting, opening up ports and pledging $1.5 billion in new aid.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.