Saudi-Israeli relations: The curious case of a NEOM meeting denied

A combination picture shows Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Osaka, Japan June 29, 2019 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem February 9, 2020. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY and REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/Pool

According to Israeli officials, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in NEOM, the futuristic techno-city in northwest Saudi Arabia that symbolizes the crown prince’s plans to remake the kingdom’s economy. Saudi Arabia denies that the meeting took place, with Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan saying flatly: “No such meeting occurred.” Air-traffic watchers saw that a plane previously used by Netanyahu flew from Israel to the area near NEOM, spent several hours on the ground, and returned, seemingly confirming the leaks in Israel. The reports set off a frenzy of speculation about a formal opening of ties between the two countries, which have had covert contacts going back to the 1960s.

The ambiguity over the facts is the first puzzling aspect of these reports: Did a meeting actually take place? Did something go awry? Or did a meeting take place, but each side took the public stance that best met its political needs? Certainly, such a meeting is yet another boon to Netanyahu, domestically, following the treaties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, and the initiation of normalization with Sudan. Netanyahu is eyeing another round of national elections — the fourth in two years. For MBS, on the other hand, there is a delicate dance to play between his own apparent desire for closer ties with Israel and the constraints both of public opinion in Saudi Arabia and of the other views within the ruling family, including his father, the king.

A second puzzle is timing. Why would the Saudi and Israeli leaders take such a significant public step now (if indeed they did)? The prospect of the new Joe Biden administration looms large for both parties. One might have thought that both Riyadh and Jerusalem would opt to minimize their intimate relationship with the lame-duck Trump and Pompeo, and instead present their warming relationship as a welcome opportunity for the incoming Biden and secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken. Give it some time and distance from the Trump era, one might think, and Saudi Arabia and Israel could offer Biden a big Middle Eastern success to eclipse the normalization pacts of 2020, in return for any number of policy rewards.

Indeed, both countries may feel they need something to “give” the Biden team, which promises to end the blank check of the Trump years. For the Saudis in particular, the attitude from Washington may change dramatically on January 20th. Biden will likely end the blanket protection Trump gave them from a Congress concerned over human rights abuses and keen to halt arms sales that enabled the Saudi war in Yemen. As a candidate, Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah state, and said he would “end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.” The Saudis have undoubtedly also noted the centrality of democracy and values in Biden’s foreign policy statements, and his criticism of Trump for coddling dictators.

This suggests that Saudi Arabia has strong incentive for a dramatic move that will change the way the kingdom is perceived in Washington. There is no question that diplomatic recognition of Israel would be such a move.

A Saudi-Israeli opening, if and when it comes, would indeed be historic. While the openings to Israel by the UAE and Bahrain (and nominally, Sudan) were meaningful and dramatic, Saudi Arabia has been the big prize in recent Arab-Israeli rapprochement. The Saudi monarchy’s role as “Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques” in Mecca and Medina make the kingdom an undisputed heavyweight in the Muslim world. In today’s beleaguered Middle East, Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most politically and economically influential Arab state. Thus, open Saudi-Israeli ties could unlock relations for Israel with many other Arab or Muslim-majority states and would put to rest forever the idea that such ties could only come about through a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And yet, the meeting took place (again, assuming it did) before a Biden administration could take any credit for it, or add any sweeteners. Why the rush? There are at least three possible explanations. First, there is the simple fact that Trump and Pompeo remain in office and fully empowered for another 50-odd days. Biden-proofing U.S. policy toward Iran is high on the agenda for all three parties, whether by skillfully working redundancies into a host of new sanctions on Iran, tying them to non-nuclear Iranian activity that would be hard to undo in the context of nuclear negotiations, or by designating the Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organization. There might be other items left on the Saudi and/or Israeli agenda with Trump to make them solicitous of the outgoing administration.

A second possibility is that their meeting was itself a message to the incoming Biden administration, a way of saying: Keep us close, coordinate with us, or you may find that we don’t need you as much as you think; we have each other, and we can even work together irrespective of your preferences if necessary.

There is a final, less likely but more dramatic possibility: that Pompeo’s trip was not just about legitimating Israeli settlements and tightening sanctions on Iran, but about coordinating a major American policy step that would precede the inauguration. This would have to be significant enough to demand a face-to-face consultation between the leaders. Such a step could perhaps even be a limited military strike targeting Iranian interests, such as the Natanz nuclear facility, where Iran has now reportedly enriched 12 times the amount of fissile material permitted under the Iran nuclear deal.

Moreover, going public with its relationship with Israel may not be the boon for Saudi Arabia in Biden’s Washington that it might seem. A Saudi opening to Israel could provide a short-term boost for the kingdom on Capitol Hill and in the media, but it wouldn’t address the underlying issues that have led both Democrats and Republicans to rethink the bilateral relationship. The rethink was triggered first by the Saudi intervention in Yemen and the horrific humanitarian consequences of the war there. But layered on top of that issue are brazen Saudi breaches of international and diplomatic norms, egregious abuses of human rights, and manifest disrespect for its longstanding partnership with the United States. In just the last five years, the Saudi government has: kidnapped and forced the resignation of the Lebanese prime minister, blockaded a neighbor who is also a U.S. partner, planted spies in a major American company, sent Saudis to the United States to intimidate and possibly kidnap Saudi dissidents living here, murdered a Saudi legally residing in the United States and contributing to an American newspaper, and used Saudi diplomatic privileges to help Saudi citizens accused of ordinary crimes in the U.S. escape the reach of American courts.

This series of actions, and the brashness of their conduct, has led many in Washington to question the judgment and reliability of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. American officials know very well that they cannot choose who leads Saudi Arabia, but they can assess whether that Saudi leader can be a trusted partner for the United States and merits American investment. Biden has already promised such as assessment, and many in Congress — on both sides of the aisle — are likely to approve.

Saudi Arabia can alter that perception — there is still good logic in a functional U.S.-Saudi partnership for both sides — but the first step is recognizing the gravity of the problem and the need for work to repair it. The Saudi government has its own concerns and grievances to raise with Washington, like legislation (passed over President Barack Obama’s veto) that allows families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks to pursue tort claims in American courts. No doubt they are upset by the inconsistent support Trump provided Saudi Arabia when it faced Iranian-backed attacks on its territory. No doubt they still smart from President Obama’s withdrawal of support for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Most relevant today: They are deeply concerned over a return of a Biden administration to negotiations with Iran and an end to the “maximum pressure” campaign of the Trump years. But the way to have such concerns taken seriously is to have a frank, and mostly discreet, conversation accompanied by a willingness for bold corrective action.

Saudi-Israeli normalization would certainly be welcomed in Washington, but the welcome would not change the fundamental equation between the U.S. and Riyadh.

If Saudi national interest dictates an opening to Israel, that would be a tremendous advance for regional peace and stability. Saudi-Israeli normalization would certainly be welcomed in Washington, but the welcome would not change the fundamental equation between the U.S. and Riyadh. There is no avoiding the real issues at stake.

If Saudi Arabia wants to repair relations with Washington, it should instead take steps to demonstrate its understanding of Washington’s concerns and build its reputation as a partner in good faith. Working assiduously to end the Yemen war, while keeping in mind Saudi Arabia’s legitimate security concerns there, would be the most obvious such step. Riyadh could address specific concerns by dismissing the charges and ending the endless criminal trial against women’s rights activists, as well as firmly and finally ejecting from any royal or government role Saud al-Qahtani, the reported mastermind of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and the architect of MBS’s campaign against exiled dissidents. Such moves could set the stage for a better conversation between the incoming American president and the crown prince.

Israel too will find that the new administration is keen on avoiding the battles of the Obama-Netanyahu years, but not so keen as to jettison its own policy preferences for the sake of smooth sailing. On Iran, on Israeli settlement policy, on the viability of a two-state solution, there are real differences that cannot be papered over by public ceremonies. The most fruitful way forward, then, would be to build on the intimate relationship between Washington and Jerusalem for a close, honest, and coordinated path for managing these policy differences.

An open Saudi-Israeli-American summit, signaling close ties and shared visions for the future, would indeed be an excellent development. It would be even better if the photo op marked a fresh start all the way around the table.