The normalization process between Israel and the Arab states was not interrupted by the change of government in the United States; the Biden administration also encouraged the expansion of relations. Israel keeps working behind the scenes to promote additional Arab and Muslim states to join the process, particularly Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) is taking a less rigid public stance toward Israel than his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Last week, he referred openly to the issue in an interview with Atlantic Magazine. Curiously, some of his comments did not appear in the American magazine but were reprinted in a transcript published by the Saudi Press Agency.
Regarding the growing normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bin Salman said:
“The agreement between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries states that no GCC country will take any action—political, security, economic action—that harms other GCC countries. And all GCC countries have committed to this. Regardless of that, each country has the independence to do whatever they want, based on their views, and they have a total right to do whatever they think … .”
Regarding a possible normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Bin Salman reiterated the traditional Saudi position that it depends on progress in the Israeli-Palestinian channel.
“For us, we hope that the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is solved. 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 said.
Since the nuclear talks began in Vienna, Saudi Arabia has been very cautious in its statements about its Shi’ite rival, Iran. The Saudis anticipated the talks’ developments very early. Immediately after the new administration took office in Washington, they opened a secret channel with Iran, mediated by Iraq, which eventually became an open channel.
Concerning the Saudi attitude to Iran, Bin Salman said in the interview:
“They are neighbors. Neighbors forever. We cannot get rid of them, and they can’t get rid of us. So, it’s better for both of us to work it out and to look for ways in which we can coexist. And we had four rounds of negotiation. We heard statements from Iranian leaders which we welcome in Saudi Arabia. And we are going to continue through the details of the negotiation. Hopefully, we can reach a position that’s good for both countries and is going to create a brighter future for this country and Iran.”
Asked about Iran’s nuclear project, the Saudi crown prince did not conceal his concern over the latest developments:
“I believe any country around the world that has a nuclear bomb—that’s dangerous, regardless if it’s Iran or any other country. So, we don’t want to see that. And also, we don’t want to see a weak nuclear deal because that’s going to end up with the same conclusion.”
A historical reference to Israel
This is the first time the Saudi crown prince has publicly referred to Israel as a “possible ally.” He also spoke about Iran in a different tone than has been previously heard. In an Atlantic interview four years ago, Bin Salman compared Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to “Hitler” and said Iran was leading the “axis of evil.” Now, the Iranians are “neighbors” of Saudi Arabia.
Bin Salman is the “strongman” in Saudi Arabia, already wielding major security and diplomatic power, and he is apparently on track to become the next Saudi king. This only underlines the importance of what he says about Israel and how he views it as a “possible ally” of Saudi Arabia against Shi’ite Iran, though he did not say that explicitly.
According to sources in Jerusalem, MBS says the same things to senior Israeli officials he meets as he said in the Atlantic interview transcript released by the Saudi Press Agency. (The statement about a possible alliance was missing in the magazine.)
MBS may see Israel as a potential ally, but so long as his elderly father King Salman is alive, it is hard for him to deviate from the traditional Saudi line on the Jewish state. At the same time, calling Israel a “possible ally” is undoubtedly a further positive step in preparing Arab hearts and minds for normalization with Israel, especially when done on the eve of a renewed nuclear deal with Iran in Vienna.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris continue to boycott the Saudi crown prince, whom they see as responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. They communicate directly with his father, King Salman, and ignore the crown prince. In the Atlantic interview, Bin Salman continues to deny that he ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
The murderous act, he insisted, was a mistake by those convicted for the deed. He said he was not behind them and compared what occurred to American mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I’m doing my best to make sure that we have the governance, the right process, and procedure to be sure that things like that don’t happen again. That’s my commitment.”
According to U.S. sources, President Biden has no intention to change his attitude toward the Saudi crown prince, but today, with a looming energy crisis, reports suggest that the White House is considering a visit to the Saudi Kingdom. What is still unclear is whether Washington will try to intervene in the Saudi royal family’s internal affairs to prevent Bin Salman from becoming king when his father dies or is incapacitated.
In any case, Israel views the crown prince as a friend and an ally against the Iranian danger. Even if the matter is kept unofficial, the Israeli top echelon well understands the difficulties of the Saudi royal family and is waiting patiently for a state of affairs that will make it possible to reach and announce a normalization agreement with the Saudis.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director-general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.