It’s no secret that one of the main goals of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s “secret trip” to Saudi Arabia last week was the hope of a breakthrough in normalizing ties with the powerful Sunni Gulf State. However, to the disappointment of Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, no breakthrough was reached during the unprecedented meeting between the two leaders.
According to a Channel 12 News report on Thursday, a senior Israeli official said that Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had a “very warm meeting” but the Saudis made it clear that they are not yet ready to normalize ties with Israel despite Netanyahu and Pompeo’s efforts to convince them. This is because although the crown prince supports normalization with Israel, his father, King Salman, has a diametrically opposite stance.
The king is opposed to normalizing ties with Israel until the “Palestinians have their own state,” and the source said that “no progress on normalizing ties with Israel will advance while King Salman is still alive.”
However, the report added that the meeting bore fruit in other ways and Israel and Saudi Arabia are increasing cooperation against their joint enemy Iran and also will step up bilateral trade. Many Israeli news outlets reported that the focus of the meeting was the presentation of a united front against Iran, with Saudi Arabia saying that “Israel is our most important ally against Iran.”
On Friday, a Wall Street Journal article reported on another reason for the lack of advancement on an Israeli/Saudi normalization deal. The report, quoting Saudi and US officials, said that the crown prince wishes to delay efforts normalize ties with Israel until after US President-elect Joe Biden enters office.
Saudi advisers told the WSJ that the prince “was reluctant to take the step now, when he could use a deal later to help cement relations with the new American leader.”
“Saudi Arabia is trying to figure out how best to use this to repair its image in Washington and generate goodwill with Biden and Congress,” one US official said.
Saudi Arabia is well-aware that its rosy years of positive relations with the US under Trump may dramatically change under Biden, who said in October that he would “reassess the US relationship with Riyadh.” More recently, Biden said he would punish Saudi leaders for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and Biden is also likely to challenge Riyadh on its human rights record and its conflict with Yemen.
A recent Reuters report quoted a foreign diplomat in Riyadh as saying that normalization with Israel may serve as a “carrot to get [Biden’s] focus away from other issues, especially human rights.”
(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem)