Task force dealing with Khashoggi fallout working on 'game-changing' photo with Israeli PM that would cast prince as peacemaker, sources say
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is reported to be “seriously considering” setting up a “game-changing” Camp David-style summit meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with US President Donald Trump playing host.
The crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, has asked the emergency task force he created to deal with the fall-out from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to look at the idea, sources in the kingdom with close knowledge of the discussions told Middle East Eye.
The plan is to present the crown prince, who is widely accused of involvement in Khashoggi’s killing, as a breakthrough Arab peacemaker in the mould of the former Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat.
Sadat shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin in 1978 in a meeting hosted by US President Jimmy Carter at Camp David, the president's country retreat.
The meeting led to Egypt becoming the first Arab state to recognise Israel and a peace treaty between the two states. Sadat was assassinated in 1981.
Mohammed bin Salman believes that the photo opportunity alone would be big enough to influence the incoming and inherently more hostile US Congress in January.
The Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections, while several Republican senators said last week it was “clearer than ever” that the crown prince, commonly known as MBS, ordered Khashoggi’s murder, after they were briefed by CIA chief Gina Haspel.
Senate set to rebuke Saudi
The Senate is due to vote on Wednesday on a motion rebuking Saudi Arabia over the murder of Khashoggi and its conducting of the war in Yemen.
The measure is largely symbolic, however, and Trump has continued to defend the US alliance with Saudi Arabia, indicating in an interview on Tuesday that he intended to “stand by” the crown prince.
“MBS asked his task force to study this proposal and he hinted that he liked the idea,” the Saudi source told MEE, referring to the suggested meeting between the crown prince and Netanyahu.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, left, US President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, right, at Camp David in 1978
“The task force agreed that without a major stunt, there is a real danger of a series of decisions from Congress that would fundamentally set back the Saudi-US relationship, which is key for the crown prince.”
The crown prince’s inner circle is acutely aware of the damage being done to his image in Washington by near-daily negative front page reports in the US media.
All on the task force agree that the furore over Khashoggi’s murder is not a media bubble that will simply pop. They fear that the sense of anger and betrayal among Republicans on Capitol Hill, who had supported the crown prince as a reformer, is growing, the source said.
Nikki Haley, the outgoing US ambassador to the United Nations, is the latest person to break ranks with the White House. Haley said on Wednesday that bin Salman was “responsible” for the murder of Khashoggi.
Haley, who is expected to step down from her role by the end of the year, said the Saudi government should not get “a pass”.
"It was the Saudi government, and MBS is the head of the Saudi government," Haley told NBC News.
"So they are all responsible, and they don't get a pass, not an individual, not the government - they don't get a pass.”
Handshake with Netanyahu
The proposal to stage a handshake with Netanyahu divided the task force, which includes Saudi intelligence, army, media and foreign office officials and political advisers.
“Some voiced concern about the consequences of this on the Arab and Muslim world,” the source said.
The current formal position of the Arab League follows the Arab Peace Initiative announced by the late King Abdullah in 2002, which offers Israel recognition and normalisation from the Arab states only after a peace agreement is concluded between Israel and Palestine.
Others in the task force were more enthusiastic. “They thought that the Arab Spring is so divided, and that things are under control,” said the source, referring to the political forces connected to the Arab Spring movement, who would object strongly to the normalising of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The task force noted the absence of any real reaction on the Arab street to the recent visits of Netanyahu and Israeli government ministers and athletes to the Gulf states of Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar.
They also thought they could control reaction inside the kingdom by “using the religious authorities to justify it”, the source said.
“MBS is keen on the idea. He comes from a new generation and does not feel the weight of history on his shoulders. He has shown this repeatedly. He has no particular sympathy with the Palestinian cause,” he said.
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The final recommendation of the task force was to ask for more time to prepare public opinion, but the source said the majority were in favour.
A senior analyst in Washington with experience of Middle East policy under the Obama administration also confirmed he had heard talk of a proposed “game-changing” meeting between MBS and Netanyahu.
The analyst said the crown prince was facing unprecedented criticism in Congress from both parties, and outlined several scenarios available to him to mitigate the crisis.
Trump and Netanyahu enjoying a handshake in September 2016 (Handout)
These included dropping the war in Yemen, with the aim of taking some of the steam out of the anger in Congress, and staging a game-changing meeting with Trump and Netanyahu. He said he understood there had already been some talks about this.
The idea of a meeting with the Israeli leader has been floating around for some time. The Israelis and Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and Middle East envoy, asked for it before the crisis with Khashoggi blew up, the Saudi source said.
“The aim of the 'Deal of the Century' is to normalise relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. But there was not talk about a specific day or date,” the source said, referring to the Trump- and Saudi-backed peace plan for Palestine.
Talking to Trump
After Khashoggi’s murder made global headlines, Saudi Arabia asked Netanyahu to launch an operation against Hamas in Gaza as part of plans to refocus Washington's attention on the role Riyadh plays in bolstering Israel's strategic interests, MEE previously reported.
A military build-up was launched on the Gaza border, but things went wrong when a covert surveillance operation was discovered. Seven Palestinians and a senior Israeli special forces officer were killed in the shootout that followed.
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“Israel had its own calculations and its own national interests. Even when they started to attack, Hamas made them pay a high price,” the source said.
Instead, Netanyahu offered Saudi Arabia help in Washington.
“They sent different messages to the Saudis that we will help in Washington, that we are talking to Trump. Our lobbyists in Washington are standing with you firmly and they created the idea that they could change the mood in Washington,” the source said.
Israeli offers of help to Saudi Arabia intensified in the last two weeks after CIA director Haspel’s briefing to key senators. After the meeting, Republican senator Lindsey Graham described the crown prince as a "wrecking ball" who was crazy and dangerous.
This was when MBS asked the task force to study the idea of a breakthrough meeting.
Deal of the Century
Preparations for the publication of Trump’s Deal of the Century are also gathering pace.
MEE understands that Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s advisor on Israel, and his team are currently drafting a final version of the document, which would set a road map for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and constitute a normalisation between Saudi Arabia and Israel independent of the outcome.
Palestinian leaders have vehemently denounced the leaked key points of the plan, which would be to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, offer Abu Dis as the capital of a future Palestinian state, take the refugees' right of return off the table, and drastically cut the number of registered refugees.
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Saeb Erekat, the veteran Palestinian negotiator, told MEE in June that the deal of the century was not a deal and was already being implemented on the ground.
"If there's any plan, this is being implemented on the ground: with moving the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem, withdrawing support for the two-state solution, cutting funds to UNRWA and, eventually, trying to normalise the Israeli apartheid in Palestine," Erekat said.
A senior Fatah official speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of relations between the Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia, said that King Salman had assured President Mahmoud Abbas and his envoys on several occasions that there would be no normalisation before the end of the occupation and that the kingdom would never accept anything that the Palestinians did not accept themselves.
However, uncertainty surrounds the 82-year-old king's state of health and the extent of his grip on power.
Oman's Sultan Qaboos with Benjamin Netanyahu in Oman earlier this year (Handout)
"We believe the king and we are sure no Saudi official would meet Netanyahu before ending the occupation and if that happened that would be weird and unacceptable to us.
“We believe that Israel is trying to enhance its relationships with the Arabs but if that happened that would be at the expense of the Palestinian cause because then Israel will never ever end its occupation. We call on all Arabs to close the doors until it ends the occupation,” he said.
Netanyahu seeking to normalise Saudi ties
In October, Netanyahu became the first Israeli leader since Shimon Peres in 1996 to visit Oman, where he met with Sultan Qaboos bin Said. He is also understood to be keen on a meeting with the Saudi crown prince.
The Israeli news channel Hadashot reported on Saturday that Netanyahu was seeking to normalise relations with Saudi Arabia before next year’s general election. The report said the US and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen were involved in the diplomatic effort.
A recent Israel security report has said that a flare-up with Hezbollah on the Lebanese border is possible, with the ongoing operation against tunnels and analysts in Israel say that Netanyahu would like Gulf cover for a war in Lebanon, should one break out.
The Israel prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment. The White House declined to comment.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.