OpinionMiddle East

The major significance of Netanyahu’s ‘secret’ Saudi trip

The Israeli prime minister has been pursuing regional peace over the course of many years, openly and behind the scenes, and it’s paying off.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at the White House on March 14, 2017. Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead.
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at the White House on March 14, 2017. Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead.
Fiamma Nirenstein
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies.

Despite the purposeful fog surrounding it, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting on Sunday night with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the seaside town of Neom shines with historical brightness.

Though another of the many Saudi princes, Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, denied in a tweet denied the existence of the meeting, everyone now knows that it took place. Everyone also takes it to indicate that the Saudis are on the verge of joining the coalition of Muslim-majority countries—Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and also Sudan—that have reached peace agreements with Israel. The meeting also signified Riyadh’s most urgent order of business: to urge the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden not to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran from which U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018.

According to the official version of the visit, the Saudis only met Pompeo. But Israeli media reported that Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia on a Gulfstream IV private jet owned by Israeli businessman Udi Angel—a plane that the prime minister had used for previous secret trips abroad.

Netanyahu took off at about 6 p.m. on Sunday from Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport and flew south along the eastern coast of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula before heading to Saudi Arabia’s northwestern Red Sea coast. He was accompanied by Mossad director Yossi Cohen.

One can surmise that Netanyahu, with the assistance of Pompeo, discussed the terms of a forthcoming normalization agreement with a country that has been the historical-ideological leader of Islamic fundamentalism—the land of Osama bin Laden, the Hajj and the Casbah—the place where every Muslim is obliged to make a pilgrimage in his lifetime to purify his soul.

Nothing could be more revolutionary. Saudi Arabia is the leading Sunni state in the Middle East, along with Egypt. It is also home to those who previously engaged in the worst bans against and delegitimization of the Jewish state, but then, with its peace plans of 2002 and 2007, opened the door to peace under certain conditions.

Israel spotted and tried to take advantage of this slightly open door.

Today, the real question is whether or not the preconditions for a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have expired, as they have on the part of the other Muslim countries that recently signed normalization agreements with Israel—through the abandonment of the burden of a “two states for two people” prerequisite.

The peace put in motion through the Trump-brokered Abraham Accords was made possible as a result of the mutual self-interest of Israel and many Arab nations—to create a bloc against a nuclearizing Iran (and imperial Ottoman designs of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), while advancing and flourishing technologically, to enable them to be the vanguard of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims. It is a vision that Pompeo and Netanyahu are confident cannot be stopped by the new American administration in name of the old Palestinian paradigm.

Netanyahu has been pursuing this kind of regional peace over the course of many years, openly and behind the scenes. It’s remarkable how he determined he has been about what seemed like an impossible dream after his ultimately having won the battle to undo the JCPOA, which former U.S. President Barack Obama signed and in which he placed faith.

The revelation of Netanyahu’s trip to Saudi Arabia irritated Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz—his “unity government” coalition partner slated to rotate with him as premier, and who reportedly was kept in the dark about the whole thing. Gantz referred to Netanyahu’s having engaged in such a meeting without informing the Cabinet or defense establishment as “irresponsible.”

Gantz, meanwhile, decided to appoint a state commission of inquiry into the $2 billion deal for Israel’s purchase of submarines from Germany, after allegations that Netanyahu may have profited from it. Netanyahu, who has been interviewed as a witness, but not a suspect, in the case, called Gantz’s move a political attempt to remove him from power.

There is no Israeli politician who doesn’t view these intersecting events as a pretext for early elections.

Despite accusations on the part of his rivals to the contrary, however, Netanyahu has been concentrating with incredible determination on two main issues. One is COVID-19, the rate of which is decreasing, even as children return to school. And despite the many and varied policy arguments within the so-called “Coronavirus Cabinet,” Israel has reverted to its previous place in the world as a country handling the pandemic relatively well. This has enabled Israelis to wait for the imminent vaccines with a measure of tranquility.

The second is regional peace, which Pompeo’s visit to Israel—as part of his 10-day, seven-nation tour to Europe and the Middle East—has strengthened. Indeed, even as many viewed it as a kind of final trip after Trump’s defeat in the Nov. 3 election, the secretary of state reiterated his administration’s dedication to the “Peace to Prosperity” vision.

This vision is not only strategic, but contains an apt ideological element that can be seen in the choice of the name “Abraham” for the peace accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, as well as between Israel and Bahrain.

Abraham is the father of the three monotheistic religions. If Israel is accepted by the Islamic “ummah” as part of its original heritage—if the three religions are going to stand together against the dogmas of Islamist warfare—then Trump, Pompeo and, of course, Netanyahu can say that they have given a genuine and durable gift to humanity.

Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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