Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has declared the kingdom is progressing in normalisation negotiations with Israel, signifying a dramatic change in policy.
“Every day we get closer,” the de facto Saudi ruler told the United States news channel Fox while reiterating his country’s call for resolution of the Palestinian problem.
“For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part,” Prince Mohammed said, speaking in English. “We got to see where we go. We hope that will reach a place that will ease the life of the Palestinians.”
Previously, Saudi Arabia has said normalised relations with Israel were dependent on the emergence of a Palestinian state.
An Israeli-Saudi normalisation would dramatically redraw the Middle East by formally bringing together two major US partners in the face of Iran – a foreign-policy victory for president Joe Biden as he seeks reelection in late 2024.
The Biden administration has shunned and isolated the crown prince. He has been accused of organising the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the consulate in Istanbul. In the interview, Prince Mohammed called this a “mistake” which would not be repeated.
The White House has pressed Saudi Arabia to follow the examples of Bahrain, the Emirates, Morocco and Sudan which established ties with Israel in 2020. Normalisation, however, does not amount to a peace treaty as Saudi Arabia and these four states never were at war with Israel. Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with Israel in 1979 and 1994.
Tehran has warned Riyadh against normalisation with Israel which could disrupt Saudi-Iranian reconciliation, brokered by China in March. The prince said this had made a “good start” and expressed the hope that this would continue. Riyadh cut relations with Tehran in 2016 after Iranians stormed the kingdom’s embassy in Iran to protest the execution of 47 dissident Saudi Shias.
The prince told Fox if Iran were to get a nuclear weapon, “we have to get one, for security reasons and the balance of power in the Middle East. But we don’t want to see that.”
In exchange for normalisation with Israel, Riyadh seeks a Nato-style strategic defence pact with the US, an unrestricted supply of arms and technology and equipment for a civilian nuclear programme. Mr Biden may not be able to deliver these demands, however, which are opposed by many in the US Congress.
The crown prince’s comments coincided with the meeting on Wednesday between Mr Biden and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session. They pledged to co-operate on Saudi-Israeli normalisation, although Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners reject both concessions to the Palestinians and Saudi demands.
Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen said on Thursday that a framework US-brokered deal for forging relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia could be in place by early next year. “The gaps can be bridged. It will take time. But there is progress,” Mr Cohen told Israel’s Army Radio.
“I think there is certainly a likelihood that, in the first quarter of 2024, four or five months hence, we will be able to be in at a point where the details (of a deal) are finalised.”