A non-denial denial. A meeting without the matchmaker Photo: Reuters, Flash90

Riyadh My Lips: No New Normalization

A Prince-Premier preparatory parley

By Amir Oren

The full content of the conversation between the host and the guest at the Sunday evening meeting in the Saudi city of Neom, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Sultan and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is known only to them. If there was a private part from which their entourages were excluded, what transpired there is a secret shared only by these two.

Once the meeting was semi-officially leaked in Israel, it was reported that the Saudi Foreign Minister denied it. Foreign Ministers are not necessarily privy to such contacts – Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel’s and Netanyahu’s political rival – learned about if from the media – and if when they are it is not unheard of for a Foreign Minister to bend the truth due to reasons of State.

But this is not what seems to have happened this time. Foreign Minister Feisal bin Farhan never denied that a meeting between MBS and BN took place, neither at all nor on that date in Neom, the Prince’s pet project across the Tiran Straits from Sharm-a-Sheikh. He very carefully phrased his statement to deny that “a purported meeting…took place during the visit of @SecPompeo”. He drove home the point that “no such meeting took place. The only officials present were American and Saudi”.

In American politics, this is known as a non-denial denial. The statement cleverly veered from the central issue of a high-level Saudi-Israeli meeting to the secondary one of whether it took place during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stop at Neom, during his regional tour, which included a previous meeting with Netanyahu in Jerusalem. According to Pompeo’s public schedule, he was set to meet MBS at 21:30, then fly home to Washington. This would allow enough time for the bride and groom to meet without their matchmaker.

So the Foreign Minister had no reason to lie. It is quite conceivable that Pompeo arranged the meeting while at Neom and summoned Netanyahu over, but did not take part in what in fact was a bilateral meeting, not a trilateral one.

This brings to mind a famous episode in Israeli political history. When secret talks between emissaries of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PLO chief Yasser Arafat were accelerating towards closure, a reporter got wind of some details but only knew that Scandinavian mediation was involved. He tried his luck by surprising Peres at a press – or Peres – conference with a direct question, “is there going to be a meeting with the PLO in Stockholm next week?” Peres recovered quickly enough to answer truthfully in the negative, turning the Q&A session to other topics. The meeting was to be held that very week, not the next one, and as has been quite known ever since, in Oslo.

Regardless of the measure of American involvement, there are two aspects to the Prince-Premier parley. The positive one is that it took place and was not disavowed when it became public. On the negative side, it was apparently not fruitful.

The positive probably outweighs the negative, because this is only one of several, perhaps many, such contacts between policy-makers and security personnel, though not all at the highest level. Or almost highest – the Prince does not yet wear the Crown. His aging father, King Salman, while not very active and letting his favorite son run the Kingdom as he pleases, retains veto power over a momentous decision such as having the Custodian of Mecca and Medina, a country where the Koran is the law of the land, officially recognize the Jewish State.

Most Israelis perceive their country as bordering only four Arab ones, in addition to the Palestinian entities in Gaza and the West Bank – Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan. But the thousands who happened to live in the then sleepy town of Elath before 1965, when the Jordanian-Saudi border was moved south by some 18 kilometers, woke up every day to look at Saudi Arabia across the top of the Red Sea, only a few kilometers removed from the Israeli-Jordanian border at the port of Aqaba, Jordan’s only maritime outlet. Bordering Egypt’s Sinai in the south and west and Jordan in the east, Elath is still the only place in Israel with such proximity to four Arab countries, because for all practical purposes, including fighter aircraft flying time and the control of the Straits of Tiran along with Egypt, Saudi Arabia is Israel’s neighbor.

The House of Saud was the most vehement of Arab regimes in opposing Zionism, expressing it in no uncertain terms ever since the meeting between founding father Ibn Saud and President F. D. Roosevelt aboard the USN Quincy in the Suez Canal’s Bitter Lake in 1945. It used its vast oil reserves to influence Washington through strategic planners concerned with World War III, State Department Arabists and petroleum comoanies executives. Sadat did not decide on the 1973 before he had Feisal’s commitment to an oil embargo, which indeed turned out to be devestating. One of Feisal’s motives was his resentment of Israel’s moves to annex East Jerusalem, as Saudi kings have always wanted – and still do – to retain some influence over the third holiest place in Islam, along with fellow Monarchs from Jordan and Morocco.

At the same time, there were converging Saudi and Israeli interests, under a common American umbrella. In the 1950’s and 60’s, the common enemy was Egypt’s Nasser, who tried to subvert the Monarchic Arabian Gulf system and helped rebels in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s poor neighbor to the south. At Saudi and Western behest, the Israeli Air Force flew cargo missions in support of Royalist forces.

Just when under Sadat Egypt embraced the West, two major menaces, Iran and Iraq, started to thretaen Saudi peace of mind even while fighting each other. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait shook the Saudis out of their reluctance to let foreigners – Egyptians, Syrians and even a coalition led by Americans – protect the Kingdom by positioning forces there and use it to fight Saddam Hussein. Israel reluctantly did its part by staying out of the war, depriving Saddam of a pretext to withdraw from Kuwait and proclaim a Jihad against the Jewish State.

After three decades of wars and upheaval, Iraq is the lesser threat now, but the Islamic Republic, a fanatic Shia rival to Sunni house of Saud, is a constant thorn in the Saudi side. With the US Central Command entrenched in the area and cooperating with the Israel Defense Forces (“CENTCOM with JEWCOM”) agsinst an aggressive Iran, a Saudi-Israeli collaboration was a natural offshoot.

There are usually only two kinds of contacts between countries – overt and covert. Thanks to the politically ambitious Netanyahu confidant Yossi Cohen, who was appointed MOSSAD chief because of his unwavering personal loyalty to the Prime Minister and his wife, there has emerged a third, hybrid form – Cohen-overt. What used to be clandestine through decades of MOSSAD ties around the region and the world is now being paraded with Cohen interviewed and getting his pictures in sartorial splendor splashed all over Television and newspapers, for credit points when he retires next year and joins Likud to fight for the Heir Apparent role – Prince Yossi bin Bibi, opposite number to MBS, with apologies to Yair Netanyahu, the Prime Minister’s second offspring and eldest son.

So Cohen, whose portfolio includes such contacts and who accompanied Netanyahu to Neom, took pride in the fact that the meeting took place, but just like his discreet predecessors up to and including Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo, could not make his boss pay the diplomatic and political prices to be charged for a true breakthrough.

The give and take is simple to imagine and difficult to implement, because from the Saudi perspective Netanyahu wants too much without being willing to pay his share in return.

Israel wants normalization of its relations – a recognition of its right to exist, some sort of diplomatic exchanges, an end to traditional hostility in the United Nations. Fair enough, on its own merit and as part of a regional momentum, pro-American and anti-Iranian.

So much for the easy part, whether with Salman’s eventual blessing or waiting for the dynasty to enthrone his son.

As for the price asked of Israel, there are three evident components. The first, intelligence and security intelligence sharing, regarding all threats to the Kingdom, foreign and domestic, should be no problem and is indeed already in place. Check. The second expectation on Riyadh’s part is that Jerusalem help it in Washington on a variety of issues of concern to Congress, from human rights and Jamal Khasoggi’s murder ordered by MBS to the sale of F-35 fighters – the Saudis will lose face if the UAE has them and they do not.

On this, it is both too late, with the Trump administration packing up to leave, and too early, with the Biden team not yet in place. Netanyahu cannot commit to more than good will. If he survives his legal troubles, he will first have to rebuild the bridges to the Democrats he burned when Biden was Obama’s VP.

The third Saudi request is the most favorable for Israel’s national interest, but not according to Netanyahu’s political calculus. In 2002, following a wave of horrific Palestinian terror acts against Israeli civilians, Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank and President George W. Bush coming out for a two-state solution, Saudi Arabia published its own peace initiative, in a similar vein. It has been endorsed by the Arab League and many senior Israeli military and security leaders, including virtually all of Cohen’s surviving MOSSAD chiefs.

For the last 18 years – a time span identical to the one it took it to cut its losses and withdraw from Lebanon altogether – Israel has resisted accepting the Saudi peace initiative as a basis for negotiations. However, Netanyahu’s two immediate predecessors and former Likud colleagues, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, did move in that direction, without acknowledging it, once Mahmud Abbas succeeded Arafat. Netanyahu, beholden to the right wing of his party and the settler political base, dare not.

The question, as always, is how much the market will bear, in the eyes of the political beholder. In Israel, for sure, but not only there. In 2002, at the same time Crown Prince Abdullah issued his initiative (he was later King for the 2005-15 decade; Salman is the third King in the five years since his death), a Saudi strategic planner, Colonel Prince Nayef bin Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, published an important article regardind his country’s military situation in the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff journal, Joint Forces Quarterly.

While the US was obviously preparing to wage war against Saddam for the second time in a dozen years, Nayef bin Ahmed – one is tempted to refer to him as NBA – concluded his piece by the following lines:

“An Arab-Israeli peace settlement is crucial for Middle East stability. Saudi Arabia is committed to finding a solution to this conflict. It sympathizes with the Palestinians and supports their right of self-determination…Saudi Arabia (will be trady) for peace once Israel agrees to withdraw from occupied Arab territories, thus clearing the way for a Palestinian state. It is time to develop Saudi-American cooperation to meet these realities and ensure stability in the Middle East”.

NBA has been promoted in the interim to the key position of the Saudi Army’s head of intelligence and security. His current status is unclear, as he was too powerful and too connected to the wrong group of MBS’ uncles and cousins to avoid the purge the Crown Prince unleashed on his rivals, real or potential. Nayef bin Ahmed was detained, along with several other Royal Highnesses, in March of this year, but is still officially listed as “First Officer” and “Chairman of the Commission” on the Land Forces Intelligence and Security website.

A good first feeler to the incoming Biden administration on Israel’s part is to ascertain in Riyadh that no harm is done to NBA and his relatives. That could signal to MBS that the heady Trumpompeo days are over, and that Israel, too, under whatever government, is about to seriously engage in a dialogue – or trialogue – about the Saudi peace initiative, also leading to normalization between the two almost-neighbors.