TIMES OF ISRAEL – Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said on Wednesday that “every day we get closer” to Saudi Arabia normalising ties with Israel, while clarifying that the Palestinian issue is still a “very important” component of the process.
The comments represented rare public remarks in English by bin Salman regarding the normalisation effort, offering an additional degree of optimism regarding its chances, hours after US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the issue during a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia known colloquially as MBS, made the comments during an interview with Fox News, which released several brief segments of the conversation that will air in full later Wednesday evening.
The crown prince has long been seen as less hostile to Israel than his father King Salman, telling The Atlantic last year, “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 clarified, apparently referring to the Palestinians.
A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters after Wednesday’s Biden-Netanyahu meeting said the Israeli prime minister also understands the importance of the Palestinian issue in the normalisation talks.
“There’s a common understanding amongst all the leaders about this very historic step between Israel and Saudi Arabia, that all the leaders involved in this have to do some very hard things, and that includes the prime minister of Israel, and that includes some component related to the fundamental issue between Israelis and Palestinians,” the senior administration official said while declining to elaborate on what that component might look like.
This would mark a shift in Netanyahu’s thinking since he has in the past sought to publicly downplay the centrality of the Palestinian component in Saudi normalisation talks. Netanyahu has long chafed at making concessions to the Palestinians and is now limited by a hardline coalition that overwhelmingly opposes a two-state solution.
But the Biden administration has long maintained that moves to significantly advance a two-state solution are essential for the deal to succeed since the concessions will be needed to placate criticism of Saudi Arabia in the Muslim and Arab world, and in order to convince enough progressive Democrats in the Senate to forgo their reservations about Riyadh’s human rights record in order to back the agreement.
In the closest Netanyahu has come yet to agreeing with the US and Saudi stance, a senior Israeli official briefing reporters on condition of anonymity after the Biden-Netanyahu meeting said that the prime minister told the president that “Palestinians should be part of the process but should not have a veto over the process.”
Constrained by far-right coalition partners who oppose steps toward Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu is seeking to limit talk of concessions to economic projects to boost Palestinian livelihood and aid for the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.
The PA, in talks with Saudi and American officials, has raised its desire for US backing for recognition of Palestinian statehood at the UN, the US reopening its consulate in Jerusalem that historically served Palestinians, the scrapping of congressional legislation characterising the PLO as a terror organisation, the Israeli transfer of West Bank territory to Palestinian control, and the razing of illegal outposts in the West Bank, according to officials familiar with the matter.
In his public remarks at the beginning of his meeting with Biden, Netanyahu reiterated his belief that an Israel-Saudi normalisation deal “would go a long way first to advance the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state and advance a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
The senior Israeli official said there was a “good chance we will succeed” in finding a path to an Israel-Saudi normalisation deal, giving it 50.1% odds.
“They agreed to move forward with working groups. The focus was on how to advance the deal, not whether to. They went into a lot of detail,” the official said.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf sounded slightly less optimistic Wednesday, saying during a live interview at an Al-Monitor conference in New York that the road to such a deal is “long and winding” and that the US is trying to “midwife” the negotiations.
The senior Biden administration official briefing reporters after the Biden-Netanyahu meeting said, “There is a basic meeting of the minds on not only the importance of that issue but some of the contours of what would be required.”
“Normalisation is a very complicated issue… Nobody has ever said this is right around the corner,” the official said “We have been making some progress, but… there’s some ways to travel on this before we get there.”
The administration official said Biden and Netanyahu had a “constructive” discussion about the issue “at some depth” during their meeting in New York.
In exchange for normalising ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia is asking for a major defence pact with the US, significant arms deals, and US cooperation in establishing a civilian nuclear program on Saudi soil. Washington is looking for Riyadh to pare down its economic and military dealings with China and Russia.
Asked whether the US and Israel see eye-to-eye on the Saudi demand for US assistance in the establishment of a civilian nuclear program, the administration official said, “Whatever is done regarding civil nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia or anybody else, will meet stringent US non-proliferation standards.”
In another clip from the Fox News interview, bin Salman said Saudi Arabia will have to obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran does.
“If they get one we have to get one,” he said.
Bin Salman said Saudi Arabia is “concerned” when any country acquires a nuclear weapon. However, he suggested that no one would use a nuclear weapon because this would mean starting a “war with the rest of the world.”
“The world cannot see another Hiroshima,” he added, referring to the Japanese city largely destroyed by a US nuclear bomb during World War II.
As for the Saudi demand for a mutual defence pact with the US, the senior administration official said, “There is a security component to the deal and a number of components “that are fundamentally in the interests of the US. That’s one reason we are obviously pursuing this but also because of the potential global dimensions.”
Turning to tensions in the West Bank, the administration official reiterated that the US is “concerned about settler violence, concerned about terrorist violence,” seemingly differentiating between the two. The official said Biden and Netanyahu discussed “very constructive ideas about the way forward” on that front.
On the Israeli government’s effort to overhaul the judiciary, the official said that “there’s an understanding [between the two leaders] that there needs to be a way forward there that involves compromise.”
The official summarised the meeting as “very constructive, very candid — ultimately we hope productive — exchange that really only President Joe Biden could have with Bibi Netanyahu.”