Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly pulled back from a normalization deal with Israel due to US President-elect Joe Biden’s election win this month and the prince’s desire to build ties with the incoming administration.
Bin Salman, son of the 84-year-old King Salman and the kingdom’s de facto ruler, is reluctant “to take the step now, when he could use a deal later to help cement relations with the new American leader,” the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on Friday.
Bin Salman held a meeting this past week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who flew to the Saudi Red Sea city of Neom for the secret rendezvous on Sunday alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, where the trio discussed developments in Iran and possible normalization.
A Saudi government adviser had earlier in the week confirmed the meeting and the trip to the WSJ, saying that the meeting, which had lasted several hours, focused on Iran and the establishment of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Jerusalem, but did not yield substantial agreements.
Citing Saudi advisers and US officials, the WSJ reported Friday that a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia under the brokerage of the new president, Bin Salman hopes, “could put relations between the Biden administration and Riyadh on surer footing.”
Biden has taken a tougher stance with Riyadh on its human rights record, the war in Yemen, and the 2018 killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The president-elect said in October that the US under his administration would “reassess our relationship” with Riyadh. Last week, Biden said he would punish Saudi leaders over the journalist’s murder.
A foreign diplomat in Riyadh cited by Reuters this week suggested that the prospect of normalization was greater under the incoming Biden administration.
“Normalization… is a carrot to get [Biden’s] focus away from other issues, especially human rights,” the diplomat said.
Pompeo had hoped to build on the momentum of the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords which saw Israel formalize ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan, and finalize an agreement with Saudi Arabia but “watched as a potential capstone to the Trump administration’s efforts to reorder the politics of the region and build a bulwark against Iran slipped from his grasp,” according to the WSJ report.
Reuters reported on Friday that another reason a deal with Riyadh remained elusive was King Salman and his reported opposition to normalization with Israel without the establishment of a Palestinian state, an analysis also made Thursday by a senior Israeli source cited by Israeli TV.
According to the report, King Salman was kept out of the loop about Netanyahu’s trip to the kingdom for talks with the crown prince.
On Friday night, Israel’s Channel 13 reported that the Saudis have raised three main conditions for a treaty with Israel: the implementation of a major advanced arms deal with the US, the clearing of their name over the killing of Khashoggi, and a genuine Israeli commitment to a two-state solution. The report was not sourced.
Khashoggi’s murder has continued to cast a shadow over the international standing of Bin Salman, whose associates have been sanctioned by the US and the UK for their alleged involvement in the brutal killing. The crown prince has denied ordering the killing and the kingdom had put at least 11 people on trial for the killing, some said to be close to the prince. Riyadh
Earlier this month, the Trump administration formally notified Congress that it intends to sell 50 stealth F-35 fighter jets and other weapons to the United Arab Emirates as part of a broader arms deal worth over $23 billion. Pompeo said he had authorized the sale in keeping with the administration’s Middle East peace efforts, and directly tied the arms sale to the UAE’s decision to normalize ties with Israel.
The arms deal was controversial in Israel and officials had previously expressed some concern about an F-35 sale because it could affect the balance of military power in the region and Netanyahu had denied he gave approval to the sale as part of the treaty with the UAE. This has been publicly questioned by Gantz and outright disputed by opposition party members.
Israel believes Saudi Arabia and Qatar are interested in similar arms deals with the US.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly predicted that Saudi Arabia and up to nine other countries were readying to normalize relations with Israel, following the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan.
Bahrain normalizing ties suggested at least a Saudi acquiescence to the idea, as the island kingdom relies on Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has also approved flights between Israel and its new Gulf friends passing over its territory.
Israel has long had clandestine ties with Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab states that have strengthened in recent years, as they have confronted a shared threat in Iran.