Saudis constantly weighing normalization with Israel, visiting US official says

Assistant secretary of state refuses to comment on Netanyahu’s meeting with crown prince, but says Riyadh’s drive for reforms would require joining Abraham Accords

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper  during a visit to Jerusalem, November 23, 2020. (David Azagury/ US Embassy Jerusalem)
US Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper during a visit to Jerusalem, November 23, 2020. (David Azagury/ US Embassy Jerusalem)

Saudi Arabia is constantly weighing whether to normalize relations with Israel, a senior US official visiting Israel said Sunday, arguing that the kingdom’s plans to open itself up to the world would require it join the so-called Abraham Accords.

In a briefing to Israeli journalists in Jerusalem, US Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper refused to comment on reports of a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Sunday. But he shared some of his impressions of having just been in the country before coming to Israel this week.

“After meetings with my Saudi interlocutors, I can affirm for you that the conversation about Saudi Arabia’s consideration of the Abraham Accords is ongoing. And it’s one that doesn’t just reside in the national security space,” he said.

Riyadh is working in implementing sweeping reforms in the framework of its so-called Vision 2030 plan, Cooper said.

“When looking at how to implement the strategic ends of Vision 2030 — to be more present in the community of nations and to bring the community of nations to Saudi Arabia — one has to include the Abraham Accords in that conversation.”

A Saudi woman holds a national flag with picture of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, marking National Day to commemorate the unification of the country as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

The interest in normalizing ties with Israel is shared by “different types of populations and constituencies across Arab states,” Cooper said.

“There are also some interesting generational perspectives,” he went on, noting that many young people in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have been surprisingly supportive of their respective government’s agreements with the Jewish state.

“There are some people-to-people aspects here that are going above and beyond what ministers probably anticipated. It’s a welcome response, but it’s one that is also observed in other capitals,” he said.

Speaking to a handful of Israeli reporters at the American Center in Jerusalem, Cooper, who has previously worked for both Republican and Democratic presidents, said he was convinced that the trend of Arab states normalizing ties with Israel would continue under President-elect Joe Biden.

“The long-term trajectory of these accords is to have more states recognize Israel as a sovereign state, to recognize Israel as a member of the community of nations,” he said, stressing that people — both inside government and in civil society — in the three Arab Gulf countries he visited before arriving in Israel share the sentiment.

Earlier on Monday, Israeli officials reportedly confirmed that Netanyahu, joined by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, had met with the Saudi crown prince in the Red Sea city of Neom. The Israeli officials participated in bin Salman’s meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to the reports.

But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan denied that any Israeli officials had participated in the meeting.

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