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What does the not-so-secret meeting between Netanyahu and MBS mean?

The 'leaked' encounter between Israel's premier and the Saudi crown prince sends a message ahead of Biden's presidency
Despite increasingly open overtures, the Saudi crown prince remains reticent to officially normalise diplomatic relations with Israel (AFP)
By in
Tel Aviv, Israel

There has rarely been a worse-kept secret. Only hours after returning from another clandestine meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed his aides to “leak” the news to the Israeli media. 

The Israeli censor, the official body which usually forbids Israeli reports on relations with countries with whom Israel doesn’t have official diplomatic relations, was silent. It was widely understood as a signal to allow the information to be published.  

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And the news published was thus: Netanyahu - accompanied by his military attache, Brigadier General Avi Bluth, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabat - flew on Sunday night in a private jet chartered from Israeli businessman Udi Angel to the futuristic city of Neom, a Saudi Red Sea resort.

There, they met for three hours with bin Salman and Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan, the director-general of the Gulf kingdom’s General Intelligence Directorate. The meeting was facilitated by outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was also present.

A controlled leak

Israeli prime ministers and all heads of Mossad since Shabtai Shavit in the early 1990s have occasionally met with senior Saudi officials including intelligence chiefs and military generals. However, all these past meetings had been tightly kept secrets, with the Saudis insisting and warning their Israeli interlocutors against revealing they had taken place. Except for some incidental leaks to foreign media, the arrangement was honoured by both sides and secrecy was maintained.

Bearing in mind the nature of past encounters, it is clear that the involved parties always knew how to make sure that the beans were not spilled.

Therefore the exposure of the most recent meeting seems to indicate that bin Salman likely approved in advance and coordinated with Netanyahu so that reports about the “secret” meeting wouldn’t come out through official statements, but rather as an authorised leak, which can still leave room for deniability. 

In other words, the meeting and the readiness to make it semi-official in the blink of an eye is yet another step taken by Saudi Arabia to normalise its relations with Israel.

It comes on the heels of a long list of moves and gestures towards Israel over the years, including past clandestine meetings; the purchase of Israeli high-tech equipment and cyber technology enabling the Saudi government to spy on its dissidents; close exchanges of views and intelligence assessment on Iran’s regional intentions and nuclear capabilities; permission for Israeli jets to fly over Saudi territory; and the greenlight for Israeli citizens with dual nationality to visit the kingdom for business, tourist purposes and more.

Obstacles remain

Nevertheless, the nocturnal meeting on Sunday night two months before US President Donald Trump leaves the White House didn’t produce the ultimately desired results.

Pompeo and Netanyahu reportedly pushed the crown prince to come out in the open and make much more significant and symbolic gestures in the direction of Israel. They tried to persuade him to agree to a public meeting or a joint statement. They explained to him that when Joe Biden becomes the 46th US president, it will be more difficult to promote bilateral relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia because any move would likely be conditioned on being part of a larger deal that would include the Palestinians. 

But bin Salman was not persuaded. It’s not that he cares about the fate of the Palestinians - he doesn’t. In a rare public opinion poll conducted in August by the pro-Israel Washington Institute, Saudis were asked to pick their first choice from four possible priorities for American policy in the region. Only 23 percent chose “pushing for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict”. The majority opted for other choices: to contain Iran, end wars in Yemen and Libya, and defend the Syrian people. 

But bin Salman fears that moving too fast to officialise relations with Israel may backfire, especially domestically. Many Saudis, including among the clergy and conservatives, perceive Israel as a hated enemy. 

Another important factor contributing to the hesitations of the crown prince to legitimise his relations with Israel is his father.

Israeli and American intelligence sources familiar with the thinking in the royal house of Saud told Middle East Eye that as long as 85-year-old King Salman is alive, he will continue to support the Palestinian cause and restrain his capricious son. The king, like his predecessors, supports a two-state solution in which Israel and Palestine live side by side in peace.

The ruler and his son are also waiting anxiously to see what decisions the Biden administration will take on the Iranian front. More than anything else, Saudi leaders are concerned that the incoming US leader, who intends to open talks with Iran, will lift sanctions and sign a new nuclear deal favourable to Tehran.

Thus, Mohammed bin Salman is at the moment torn between his disregard for the Palestinian cause, his desire and need to use Israel to prevent cooperation between Biden and Iran, and his father and the conservative circles who want to see a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The delicate situation with conflicting domestic and international interests forces the crown prince to continue sitting on the fence and avoid taking dramatic decisions. It is expected that Saudi Arabia will continue with its step by step policy of cautiously enhancing relations with Israel.