'If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, we'll have to also'

Saudi crown prince: Israel and Saudi Arabia moving closer to normalization ‘every day’

MBS: Would be biggest deal since end of Cold War; will work with ‘whoever runs Israel’; Palestinians ‘important’; US official: PM knows ‘very hard things’ needed on Palestinian front

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the APEC Leader's Informal Dialogue with Guests during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation APEC summit, November 18, 2022, in Bangkok, Thailand. (Athit Perawongmetha/Pool Photo via AP)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the APEC Leader's Informal Dialogue with Guests during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation APEC summit, November 18, 2022, in Bangkok, Thailand. (Athit Perawongmetha/Pool Photo via AP)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Wednesday that “every day we get closer” to Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with Israel, while clarifying that the Palestinian issue is still a “very important” component of the process.

The comments represented rare public remarks in English by bin Salman on the normalization effort, offering an additional degree of optimism about its chances, hours after US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the issue during a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia known colloquially as MBS, made the comments during an interview with Fox News, which initially released brief segments of the conversation before it aired in full later Wednesday evening.

Bin Salman was asked whether he had any issue with making peace with the current hardline Israeli government led by Netanyahu. He responded that Saudi policy is not “to interfere with who’s running each country” and that it works with whoever is in charge.

“Now, we don’t have a relation with Israel, but if the Biden administration succeeded in making, I believe, the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War, then we’re going to start a relationship and that relationship continues regardless of who’s running Israel,” the crown prince said.

“If we have a breakthrough [toward] reaching a deal that gives the Palestinians their needs and makes the region calm, we’re going to work with whoever’s there.”

Pressed on what kind of concessions he would like to see on the Palestinian front, MBS declined to elaborate but said “I want to see really a good life for the Palestinians.”

The crown prince has long been seen as less hostile to Israel than his father King Salman, telling The Atlantic last year, “We don’t look at Israel as an enemy, we look to them as a potential ally with many interests that we can pursue together.”

“But we have to solve some issues before we get to that,” he clarified, apparently referring to the Palestinians.

In the Wednesday interview, bin Salman was asked, “What would it take for you to agree to normalize relations with Israel?”

He said, “For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part. We have good negotiations [that] continue till now. We’ve got to see where it will go.

“We hope it will reach a place that it will ease the life of the Palestinians, and get Israel as a player in the Middle East,” he added, notably expressing his desire to improve Palestinian livelihoods, rather than secure the Palestinians a state of their own. Palestinian statehood had long been the goal of Saudi Arabia, which introduced the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 that offered Israel normalized relations with the entire Arab world only after it negotiated a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Asked, are you close to a deal, he said, “Every day we get closer. It seems for the first time a real one, serious. We’re going to see how it looks.”

He flatly denied recent reports that the talks had been suspended as “not true.”

A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters after Wednesday’s Biden-Netanyahu meeting said the Israeli prime minister also understands the importance of the Palestinian issue in the normalization talks.

“There’s a common understanding amongst all the leaders about this very historic step between Israel and Saudi Arabia, that all the leaders involved in this have to do some very hard things, and that includes the prime minister of Israel, and that includes some component related to the fundamental issue between Israelis and Palestinians,” the senior administration official said while declining to elaborate on what that component might look like.

This would mark a shift in Netanyahu’s thinking since he has in the past sought to publicly downplay the centrality of the Palestinian component in Saudi normalization talks. Netanyahu has long chafed at making concessions to the Palestinians and is now limited by a hardline coalition that overwhelmingly opposes a two-state solution.

But the Biden administration has long maintained that moves to significantly advance a two-state solution are essential for the deal to succeed since the concessions will be needed to placate criticism of Saudi Arabia in the Muslim and Arab world, and in order to convince enough progressive Democrats in the Senate to forgo their reservations about Riyadh’s human rights record in order to back the agreement.

In the closest Netanyahu has come yet to the US and Saudi stance, a senior Israeli official briefing reporters on condition of anonymity after the Biden-Netanyahu meeting said that the prime minister told the president that “Palestinians should be part of the process but should not have a veto over the process.”

Constrained by far-right coalition partners who oppose steps toward Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu is seeking to limit talk of concessions to economic projects to boost Palestinian livelihood and aid for the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

The PA, in talks with Saudi and American officials, has raised its desire for US backing for recognition of Palestinian statehood at the UN, the US reopening its consulate in Jerusalem that historically served Palestinians, the scrapping of congressional legislation characterizing the PLO as a terror organization, the Israeli transfer of West Bank territory to Palestinian control, and the razing of illegal outposts in the West Bank, according to officials familiar with the matter.

US President Joe Biden, right, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023 (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

In his public remarks at the beginning of his meeting with Biden, Netanyahu reiterated his belief that an Israel-Saudi normalization deal “would go a long way first to advance the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state and advance a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

The senior Israeli official said there was a “good chance we will succeed” in finding a path to an Israel-Saudi normalization deal, giving it 50.1% odds.

“They agreed to move forward with working groups. The focus was on how to advance the deal, not whether to. They went into a lot of detail,” the official said.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf sounded slightly less optimistic Wednesday, saying during a live interview at an Al-Monitor conference in New York that the road to such a deal is “long and winding” and that the US is trying to “midwife” the negotiations.

The senior Biden administration official briefing reporters after the Biden-Netanyahu meeting said, “There is a basic meeting of the minds on not only the importance of that issue but some of the contours of what would be required.”

“Normalization is a very complicated issue… Nobody has ever said this is right around the corner,” the official said “We have been making some progress, but… there’s some ways to travel on this before we get there.”

The administration official said Biden and Netanyahu had a “constructive” discussion about the issue “at some depth” during their meeting in New York.

Anti-overhaul activists protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he meets with US President Joe Biden, in New York City, September 20, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

In exchange for normalizing ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia is asking for a major defense pact with the US, significant arms deals, and US cooperation in establishing a civilian nuclear program on Saudi soil. Washington is looking for Riyadh to pare down its economic and military dealings with China and Russia.

Asked whether the US and Israel see eye-to-eye on the Saudi demand for US assistance in the establishment of a civilian nuclear program, the administration official said, “Whatever is done regarding civil nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia or anybody else, will meet stringent US non-proliferation standards.”

In another passage from the Fox News interview, bin Salman said Saudi Arabia will have to obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran does.

“It’s a useless effort, to reach a nuclear weapon, because you can’t use it. If you use it, you’re going to have a big fight with the rest of the world,” he said.

“If they get one we have to get one — for security reasons, for balance of power in the Middle East. But we don’t want to see that,” he said.

Bin Salman said Saudi Arabia is “concerned” when any country acquires a nuclear weapon. However, he suggested that no one would use a nuclear weapon because this would mean starting a “war with the rest of the world.”

“The world cannot see another Hiroshima,” he added, referring to the Japanese city largely destroyed by a US nuclear bomb during World War II.

As for the Saudi demand for a mutual defense pact with the US, the senior administration official said, “There is a security component to the deal and a number of components “that are fundamentally in the interests of the US. That’s one reason we are obviously pursuing this but also because of the potential global dimensions.”

Turning to tensions in the West Bank, the administration official reiterated that the US is “concerned about settler violence, concerned about terrorist violence.” The official said Biden and Netanyahu discussed “very constructive ideas about the way forward” on that front.

On the Israeli government’s effort to overhaul the judiciary, the official said that “there’s an understanding [between the two leaders] that there needs to be a way forward there that involves compromise.”

The official summarized the meeting as “very constructive, very candid — ultimately we hope productive — exchange that really only President Joe Biden could have with Bibi Netanyahu.”

Khashoggi ‘mistakes’

Prince Mohammed has given very few interviews to Western media outlets, particularly since the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist, in an operation by Saudi agents that US intelligence says was likely approved by the prince. The prince has denied any involvement.

He said on Fox News of Khashoggi’s killing that “we tried to reform the security system to be sure that these kinds of mistakes doesn’t happen again.”

“It was a mistake. It was painful,” the crown prince said, while insisting that “everyone involved” served jail time.

Bin Salman was also asked about Jared Kushner, an ex-White House adviser and former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law who secured a $2 billion investment from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to jump start his new private equity firm. The prince said “we look” for global investment opportunities and that PIF keeps its commitments to investors — planning to do so even if Trump wins another term as president next year.

Saudi Arabia has made major progress in winding down its devastating war with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, this week hosting a rebel delegation in the capital, Riyadh. It spearheaded the return of Syria to the Arab League, and in March agreed to a Chinese-brokered deal to restore diplomatic relations with Iran, its main regional rival.

The prince’s far-reaching social reforms have transformed the kingdom from an ultraconservative state governed by a strict form of Islamic law to an aspiring entertainment powerhouse, investing billions of dollars in everything from top soccer stars and golf tournaments to video games.

But the prince has proven to be even less tolerant of dissent than his predecessors. Saudis who speak out against his policies can face long prison sentences or even the death penalty, and that has even extended to Saudis living on US soil.

The 38-year-old prince assumed day-to-day rule after his aging father King Salman named him next in line to the throne in 2017.

Biden, who had vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the Khashoggi killing while campaigning for president in 2020, has since bowed to that reality, patching up relations with the crown prince while seeking his help in controlling oil prices and managing other regional issues.

Bin Salman said during the interview that “the agenda between Saudi Arabia and America today is really interesting” and characterized his country’s relationship with Biden as “really amazing.”

He was also asked about critics who have accused Saudi Arabia of investing heavily in golf and other sports in attempted “sportswashing,” or spending to improve the kingdom’s political image abroad. The prince said he wasn’t bothered by such charges and if sports investments continue to grow Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product significantly, then his country would “continue to do sportswashing.”

AP contributed to this report.

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