Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spent two hours with a group of American evangelical Christians who came to Riyadh last week to speak with him about inter-religious understanding, tolerance and the fight against extremism. The crown prince is no stranger to meetings of this kind, but the delegation, which was headed by American evangelical author and Jerusalem resident Joel Rosenberg, went to Saudi Arabia with an additional mission.
The Saudi crown prince has been waging a concerted campaign to clear his name in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He's also been pushing to assuage U.S. President Donald Trump, who had begun to show that his enthusiasm for the prince was cooling. Therefore, a meeting with an evangelical delegation that included pro-Israeli figures might have seemed to provide an effective recipe to turn things around in Washington over the suspicions against the prince.
Mohammed bin Salman is well aware of the power of Jewish and evangelical lobbyists, but his prior meetings with Jewish and pro-Israel groups took place in Washington. In March, he held a six-hour-long meeting with six leading Jewish organizations, including AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League. He did not meet with groups further to the left, such as J Street or Americans for Peace Now.
What was new about last week’s meeting was that it took place in the Saudi capital. Its timing was not coincidental. The crown prince also owes a big favor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who lobbied on behalf of the Saudi crown prince with Trump, taking the position that although Khashoggi’s murder was a horrible thing, relations with Saudi Arabia were more important.
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Surely Khashoggi never could have imagined that his death would actually bring about closer relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The question of whether this warming of ties will lead to full diplomatic relations doesn’t depend only on flirtations with evangelical and Jewish groups, but mainly over the nature of the gestures that Israel would be prepared to make towards the Palestinians -- gestures that would have to reach far enough to justify full diplomatic relations.
The Israel-Palestine portfolio in this web of ties has been “entrusted” to the sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said. Last week, bin Said extended a highly respectful welcome to the Israeli prime minister and his wife, as well as to Yossi Cohen, the head of the Mossad intelligence service, which had put together the plans for the meeting over a course of a number of months.
According to several Arab media outlets, Qaboos has made suggestions to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas regarding the draft American proposal on Israeli-Palestinian peace. For example, the Omani sultan suggested deferring discussion of the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees and the establishment of an investment fund for the development of the West Bank. The Palestinian president reportedly didn’t reject the suggestions out of hand but asked for time to think about them.
At the same time, there have been frequent contacts aimed at preparing the ground for a new destination on Netanyahu’s travel itinerary, apparently to the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain. On Friday, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Khalifa posted a tweet in which he wrote: “Despite existing disagreement, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu has a clear position with regard to the importance of stability in the region and of the Saudi role in such stability.”
The tweet generated a large number of responses on social media. Among the comments was the new reference to “Mr. Netanyahu,” which was thought to have diplomatic significance. Bahrain is a satellite state of Saudi Arabia, which saved the Bahraini monarchy from collapse during the 2011 Arab Spring, when Saudi Arabia dispatched military forces to disperse - and kill - demonstrators. About six months ago, in reference to Israeli attacks on Syria, Bahrain declared that Israel has the right to defend itself, an exceptional statement from an Arab country.
Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Khalifa, has noted on several occasions that he opposes the anti-Israel boycott. He has also allowed his ministers and other representatives to meet with high-level Israelis. So, for example, the Bahraini foreign minister met with Tzipi Livni when she was Israel's foreign minister in 2007, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings.
It was also reported in Israel that in 2009, Livni and then-President Shimon Peres met with the king of Bahrain. According to Wikileaks, in 2005, the king boasted of his close ties with the Mossad. Such reports would also appear to apply to Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
In addition, one should note the close cooperation that Israel and Qatar have had on the issue of Gaza. Qatar, which in recent years had been considered in Israel as a country supporting terrorism over its ties with Hamas and Iran, has over the past year become an executive arm of sorts in carrying out Israeli policy in Gaza. Israel agreed to permit Qatar to fund fuel to be shipped into Gaza and to pay the salaries of Palestinian bureaucrats there - two of the issues that gave rise to weekly Gaza protests along the Israeli border fence that began at the end of March.
This is not disconnected from the Saudi crown prince’s statement praising Qatar for its economic plan, which he said has been successful and the fruits of which will be apparent in another five years. That’s the first statement of praise by the Saudi crown prince about Qatar since Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates imposed an economic blockade on the country in July of 2017. For its part, Qatar replied that it is prepared to return to the negotiating table on the condition that Saudi Arabia apologize to the Qatari people and lift the siege.
The Trump administration has been working on the subject of Saudi-Qatari reconciliation since the economic boycott was imposed, and is joined in it its efforts by Turkey, a Qatari ally, which now has leverage to exacerbate or calm things when it comes to the Khashoggi affair. The crown prince’s faltering standing and his dependence on America’s “verdict” on his fitness for office could lead him not only to promote a conciliation process between the Gulf states and Israel but could also lead to a change in Saudi policy towards Qatar and Turkey.