Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's apparent trip to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Sunday raises the tantalizing prospect of Saudi Arabia joining the new alliance of Gulf Arab states with Israel. It also seems to show how the former enemies are relying on each other to dispel the ill winds already blowing in their direction from the incoming Biden administration. As arguably the greatest beneficiaries of US President Donald Trump's foreign policy, Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman now seek to insulate themselves against indications they'll soon be shunned by the Biden White House as rogue actors.
So Netanyahu canceled a cabinet meeting on Sunday and, according to multiple accounts, slipped into a private business jet for the one-hour flight across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia's western coast. In the desert city of Neom, under construction as a $500 billion showcase of technological innovation, the Israeli leader spent as much as five hours with Saudi Arabia's heir to the throne, joined by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mossad Director Yossi Cohen.
What the four men discussed is a matter of wild speculation—some thought the meeting was about an imminent attack on Iran before US President-elect Joe Biden gets a chance to rejoin the 2015 nuclear agreement, while others hoped Saudi Arabia might follow the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in officially normalizing relations with the Jewish state. Come Jan. 20, Washington is likely to be following a different policy in the Middle East. Biden has talked openly about a reassessment of the US-Saudi relationship in light of the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul. Netanyahu's outspoken opposition to negotiations with Iran, particularly his 2015 address to a joint session of the US Congress, is still remembered as an impudent poke at former President Barack Obama when Biden was vice president.
The meeting in Neom was meant "to nail something down" before Trump leaves office and "send a signal to the Biden administration," said Joshua Teitelbaum, a professor at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, who is writing a book on the history of the Saudi military. The message, he said, is that "these are two major allies in the region who are getting together." It appears, however, that the message wasn't meant for the public: After news of the Sunday flight was leaked to Israeli media on Monday and confirmed by both Israeli and Saudi officials, it was officially denied by Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan.
Come Jan. 20, Washington is likely to be following a different policy in the Middle East.
Netanyahu, who declined on Monday to confirm or deny the encounter, has made an art form out of dropping hints about secret engagements with Arab leaders without confirming that they took place. Reports have popped up about meetings between Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman aboard Red Sea yachts, in neighboring Jordan, and in various European cities. The only time Netanyahu has met publicly with any Gulf ruler was in 2018, when he visited Oman's late Sultan Qaboos, who died in January, in Muscat.
All those hints, though, masked deepening but unofficial diplomatic relations that Netanyahu conducted with a wide range of Arab countries, even as he was vilified in public for his hardline policy toward the Palestinians and plans to annex almost 30 percent of the West Bank. The payoff came in September, when he sat beside Trump on the South Lawn of the White House and signed the Abraham Accords with the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain, opening the path toward diplomatic relations with the Gulf states, along with promised cooperation in business, defense, intelligence, aviation, tourism, medical research, and Muslim-Jewish reconciliation. The icing on the cake was a $23 billion arms deal in which Israel dropped long-standing objections to the United States selling F-35 stealth fighter jets to the UAE.
What has been missing from Middle East rapprochement, however, is the participation of Saudi Arabia, the biggest and wealthiest member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Trump's first foreign trip as president was to Saudi Arabia, which he followed with a groundbreaking direct flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv. Since announcing the Israel-UAE agreement from the Oval Office in August, Trump and his aides have said they expect the Saudis to climb aboard as well. Until this point, the Saudis have said any formal agreement with Israel would have to rest on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative originally brought forward by the Saudis, which requires Israel to accept Palestinian statehood and withdraw from the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.
As the Trump era ends, both Israel and the Gulf states are anxious about what to expect from the new administration and positioning themselves for a return to the familiar policy outlines followed by Obama, including defusing the Iran conflict, sympathy for the Palestinians, and a stress on human rights. It's clear that Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman share some deep concerns before Trump's departure, said Ebtesam al-Ketbi, president of the Emirates Policy Center in Abu Dhabi. "They want to be sure that what Biden is going to do will not affect their mutual interests."
Jonathan H. Ferziger is a Jerusalem-based non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Middle East correspondent for Bloomberg News. Twitter: @jhferziger
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