Israel and Saudi Arabia send a clear signal to Iran—and Joe Biden
Sharp-eyed journalists noticed the unusual flight on an online flight-tracking website and quickly put two and two together: Mike Pompeo, America’s secretary of state, was also in the kingdom, meeting Muhammad bin Salman, the powerful crown prince, in Neom, a new high-tech city that the prince is building in the north of the country. Unusually, calls to Mr Netanyahu’s office to confirm reports that all three men had met were not rebuffed with denials. Equally surprising was the lack of action by Israel’s military censors, who in the past had quickly quashed similar reports of Israeli-Saudi co-operation. One of Mr Netanyahu’s aides snidely tweeted that unlike his defence minister and rival, Benny Gantz, “who is making politics”, Mr Netanyahu “is making peace”. Saudi officials have also confirmed the meeting between Mr Netanyahu and Prince Muhammad, reports the Wall Street Journal.
The two reportedly talked about Iran as well as about establishing diplomatic ties. Yet unlike the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which recently “normalised” relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia is not ready to open an embassy in the Jewish state. King Salman bin Abdulaziz has long supported Palestinian demands for an independent state in territories captured by Israel in 1967 and the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative. This policy, which exhorts members of the Arab League not to establish normal relations with Israel until it withdraws from all occupied territories, is unlikely to change while King Salman is alive. As a sign of the continuing tensions within the Saudi royal family over relations with Israel, the Saudi foreign minister belatedly denied that any such meeting had occurred.
And although neither side has offered official confirmation, both seem happy enough that the news has leaked out because of two key messages it sends. The first is as a warning to Iran: as it steps up its nuclear activities, the regional alliance against it is becoming bolder. In mid-November the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium was 12 times higher than the limit set by a nuclear accord it agreed to in 2015 (and from which America withdrew in 2018). Israel has in the past threatened to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites if it believes the country is close to building a nuclear bomb.
The second message the meeting sends is to America and the incoming administration of Joe Biden. When Donald Trump took over the presidency, much of his policy in the Middle East seemed focused on unwinding the legacy of his predecessor, Barack Obama, whose administration had struck the nuclear accord with Iran and several other powers. Mr Trump tore up the deal and reimposed economic sanctions that had been lifted under it. His administration has also abandoned a long-standing American policy of acting as an impartial peacemaker between Israel and the Palestinians, saying it would recognise Israel’s annexation of conquered territories. The Trump administration has also delighted Saudi Arabia with its tough stance on Iran and its indulgence of Saudi human-rights abuses, including the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, an exiled journalist.
All this may be about to change under Mr Biden, who earlier this year called the Saudi regime a “pariah” and threatened to cut off arms sales over human-rights concerns. He has also promised to restart diplomacy with Iran and renegotiate the nuclear agreement.
Israel and the Saudis seem to have put the president-elect on notice that they intend to pool their considerable diplomatic and political capital in Washington to oppose major changes in America’s Middle East policy. That is something of an achievement for a meeting that, officially at least, never took place.