Netanyahu and MBS Have Good Reason to Meet

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Why hold a historic meeting with potentially major geopolitical consequences and then deny it?

On Sunday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly flew in a privately owned plane to Neom, a futuristic city in progress on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia. He was (again, reportedly) accompanied by the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, and at least two other senior defense advisors.

The following day, both Israeli newspaper Haaretz and The Wall Street Journal reported that Netanyahu had met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan conceded that the Crown Prince and the Secretary of State met, but he flatly denied the presence of any Israelis. Netanyahu told the Israeli media that he does not, as a matter of course, discuss his sensitive diplomatic missions. In Israeli code, such a non-denial would usually imply that he was in fact there.

By law, Israeli state secrets have to be approved by the military censor before they can be published. The fact that the leak of Netanyahu's MBS meeting was approved for publication leads me to believe that Bibi wanted it leaked. Ehud Yaari, the most veteran Israeli journalist covering the Middle East, told Israel's Channel 12 TV Monday that the two have even met before.

Perhaps the Saudi foreign minister was not around when Bibi arrived. But it strains credulity that Netanyahu, whose flight was tracked online by an editor at Haaretz, would secretly fly to a destination where the Crown Prince and the Secretary of State were gathered, and not drop in on the meeting. 

The question is: Why would the Saudis claim otherwise? Back channel talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel have been going on for months. The subject is whether, and under what conditions, the kingdom will join the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in normalizing relations with Jerusalem. Such a deal is necessary to shore up a military and diplomatic alliance against Iran.

Outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump has long hoped to host a grand peace treaty signing at the White House. But that is now very unlikely. Even Pompeo understands that. Still, it is a worthy goal.  

In recent months, it has been widely reported that the Crown Prince wants to move things along, but is encountering resistance from his elderly father, semi-retired King Salman bin Abdulaziz, who is less enthusiastic. He is a lifelong supporter of the Palestinian cause; an open Saudi-Israeli relationship would leave the Palestinians bereft of meaningful Arab support. 

MBS, who is also defense minister, cares less about appeasing the Palestinians than he does about the threat Saudi Arabic faces from Iran and its proxies in Yemen and elsewhere. A de facto security alliance with Israel already exists. But that alliance requires strong American buy-in.

The Trump administration is all in, but it is also on the way out. The Saudis may well see the value of giving President-elect Joe Biden an early diplomatic victory by brokering what would truly be an historic treaty.

But this would come with a price for the new administration. The Obama-Biden administration diplomacy sought good relations with Iran. The capstone of that that effort was the 2015 nuclear limitations deal led by the U.S. After four years of Trump administration pressure, that pact is now moribund. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran enriching uranium at roughly 12 times the level permitted in the agreement. 

There are some influential Democrats who would like to see Biden revert to the status quo ante. Both the Saudis and Israel say they are ready for new negotiations, but only if the terms include a strict limitation on Iran’s ballistic missiles, the end of Iranian military support for proxy armies in Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza and Syria, and a much longer and more stringently inspected end to military grade uranium.

It is hard to imagine that Iran would agree, which presents a choice to the new administration: It can stand with Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and other Sunni Arab countries, or pursue a detente with Iran.

There will be pressure on Biden from the European Union and by some in the Democratic Party to pursue the latter policy. But there are four senior Democratic Senators who voted against the agreement back in 2015, and others who have come to regret their support. Add in the Republicans, almost all of whom opposed the Iran deal, and Biden has the start of the bilateral foreign policy he seeks.

Such political machinations may seem complex, but they lie at the heart of a basic fact of Middle Eastern life. Iran is a threat to Israel and Saudi Arabia. To contain that threat, and ultimately roll it back, they need America. Trump got that and it’s essential that Biden does too. Both Netanyahu and MBS have the strongest possible interest in helping him see the light.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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