Despite Clear Signs to Contrary, Saudi FM Denies MbS Met with Netanyahu
Reported Sunday evening session may have centered on joint worries about Iran under a Biden administration rather than normalization, Israeli analysts say
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flew secretly to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Hebrew news reports said on Monday, in what would be the first trip by an Israeli leader to the desert kingdom.
After hours of silence, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan denied there had been such a meeting.
“The only officials present were American and Saudi,” he tweeted.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been visiting several countries in the region, including Israel, was said to be present. He confirmed in a tweet that he was in Saudi Arabia for a meeting with the crown prince.
The talks, apparently held late on Sunday, came weeks after Israel signed historic deals to normalize ties with two Saudi allies, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Both were reached under the auspices of US President Donald Trump, who leaves office in less than two months.
President Trump has said several times that other Arab countries are getting ready to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
While the meeting apparently did not result in such an accord, it was still a breakthrough amid a push by the White House for more Arab states to normalize ties with Israel before Joe Biden is sworn in as president on January 20.
On Monday morning in parliament, when a party associate teased him about the brouhaha over reports of a meeting in Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu, smiling like a Cheshire cat, refused to discuss his whereabouts the evening before.
Prof. Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line that such a meeting was historic.
“This is… dramatic news in the Middle East. It is huge – the very fact there was a meeting,” he said.
This is… dramatic news in the Middle East. It is huge – the very fact there was a meeting
“I wouldn’t dive into the content, but I think the news is the simple fact that [this] kind of meeting is being held in Saudi Arabia in 2020,” he noted. “This is bigger than normalization.”
Rabi added that it was indicative of the changing geopolitical chessboard in the region, saying such a meeting would boost security and military cooperation between the two countries, as Israel and some Gulf states view Iran as a common threat to their national security.
“This will lead to an Israeli-Arab bloc, military or security in nature, that is being formed around the geopolitical challenges of Iran, and one would say even Turkey and ISIS,” he stated.
Mohammad Marandi, a professor of English literature and Orientalism at the University of Tehran, told The Media Line that the meeting “was obviously done under US pressure.”
“MbS was probably pushed by the Trump regime to take this foolish step,” he said, using the Saudi crown prince’s nickname, although he insisted the news came as no surprise to Iran because “the Saudis and Israel have been working together quietly for decades.”
MbS was probably pushed by the Trump regime to take this foolish step
In fact, he said, it would benefit Tehran more than it would serve the interests of Riyadh.
“It weakens MbS in the eyes of Arabs and Muslims,” he explained.
“The Saudi regime is quiet because the news weakens their legitimacy,” Marandi continued. “The regime has had a good relationship with the apartheid regime [Israel] for decades, and any regional country with open Israeli ties loses credibility.”
A Palestinian official in Ramallah who asked that his name not be revealed because he was not authorized to comment told The Media Line, with no small amount of sarcasm, that “it was about time” Riyadh “caved” to US pressure.
“We don’t trust the foreign minister’s statement of denial; enough with these pointless statements. We want action,” the official said.
We don’t trust the foreign minister’s statement of denial; enough with these pointless statements. We want action
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Contradicting Farhan, The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that a Saudi government adviser had confirmed that MbS and Netanyahu held talks Sunday on Iran and normalization.
Iran remains the key issue in the Middle East, and President Trump has made supporting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates one of the centerpieces of his Middle East policy.
Abdullah Baabood, an Omani who is a Middle East expert and visiting professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, told The Media Line that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain enthusiastically and publicly applauded the US leader’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal concluded under former US president Barack Obama.
These countries believe that the US withdrawal boosted their national security and helped stop Iran’s growing influence in the region.
“The Trump Administration became much closer to the Saudis’ and the Emiratis’ views, especially vis-à-vis Iran, including the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the ‘maximum pressure’ [campaign] against Iran as well as some other policies, like the war in Yemen,” Baabood said.
The Trump Administration became much closer to the Saudis’ and the Emiratis’ views, especially vis-à-vis Iran, including the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran as well as some other policies, like the war in Yemen
Saudi Arabia has traditionally championed the Palestinian cause and insists it is committed to the decades-old Arab League position of not establishing diplomatic ties with Israel until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.
While Palestinian Authority officials remain silent about news of the meeting, Musa Abu Marzouk, a member of Hamas, the hardline Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, said in a tweet that “these meetings harm the cause and encourage the enemies.”
The Islamic Jihad movement condemned the reported visit, describing it as a political downfall, a reversal of principles and a betrayal of Jerusalem, Mecca, Medina and the Aqsa Mosque.
“Such a visit and normalization with a state that claims responsibility for the most important holy sites of the Islamic nation will encourage the Zionist occupation to continue its malicious, aggressive policies in Palestine, the holy and blessed land,” it said in a statement.
Excited Israelis have been calling the news a major breakthrough, but Rabi says it is not a step toward normalization.
“Saudi Arabia will not normalize relations with Israel,” Rabi said. “But the two countries have many understandings when it comes to security matters – more than any other state in the Arab world that already has a normalization agreement with Israel.”
Saudi Arabia will not normalize relations with Israel. But the two countries have many understandings when it comes to security matters – more than any other state in the Arab world that already has a normalization agreement with Israel
Said the Palestinian official who wished to remain anonymous: “Just the meeting [itself] constitutes normalization.”
With the US reducing the number of its troops in the region, other Middle Eastern countries want to make sure that there will be no military or security vacuum.
President-elect Biden has said he would change US policy on Iran and offer a “credible path back to diplomacy.” In the eyes of Iran’s opponents, this statement is evidence of weakness.
Rabi says that Israel and some Gulf states are trying to get ahead of events and form a united front to face a Biden administration.
“The new US administration needs to come to an agreement with Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and [other] states that are anti-Iran. And they may… announce a declaration or a statement to be delivered to the Biden administration just in case it performs poorly in regard to Iran,” he said.
Rabi added that by holding the meeting, Saudi Arabia was not thinking of the Arab or Muslim world and its possible reaction.
“This has to do with the politics of survival because Saudi Arabia is anxious about what Biden is going to come up with regarding the nuclear agreement with Iran,” he noted.
This has to do with the politics of survival because Saudi Arabia is anxious about what Biden is going to come up with regarding the nuclear agreement with Iran
He also described the meeting as quite revolutionary.
“I can’t even think,” he said, “what Ibn Saud, the founder of the kingdom, would say if he saw his grandson meeting with the Israeli prime minster in Saudi Arabia [and] talking about how to… [join] forces to meet future challenges.”