Saudi-Israel Backchannel Takes Hit After Officials Dismissed Over Khashoggi Murder, Report Says

Two of MBS' close aides allegedly led covert efforts to improve ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh, but sources tell WSJ their involvement in killing of dissident journalist 'dampened appetite for risky foreign policy endeavors'

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File photo: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman upon his arrival at Algiers International Airport, December 2, 2018.
File photo: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman upon his arrival at Algiers International Airport, December 2, 2018.Credit: Ryad Kramdi/AFP

Efforts to improve the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia have been seriously hindered after Riyadh fired two Saudi officials leading the project over suspected involvement in the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.

One of the officials, former media adviser to the court Saud al-Qahtani, issued directives to the Saudi press with the goal of improving Israel's image. The two countries have no diplomatic ties and anti-Israel sentiments are widespread in the kingdom.

The other official, also a former close aide to Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a subordinate of al-Qahtani, reportedly made several secret trips to Israel to look into employing Israeli surveillance technology, sources familiar with the matter told the Journal. The alleged visits would make former deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri the most senior Saudi official to ever set foot in Israel.

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A protester wearing a Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman mask holds up his hands, painted with fake blood, at a vigil for murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Istanbul. Oct. 25, 2018Credit: Emrah Gurel,AP

Al-Qahtani, however, "was the key player in all of this," the report quoted a Saudi official as saying. The former court adviser sought out spyware made by Israeli firm NSO Group and its Luxembourg-based affiliate, Q Cyber Technology, which signed a $55-million deal to sell cyber surveillance tools to Riyadh, the report says.

A Haaretz investigation revealed in October that NSO negotiated the sale of advanced cyber-attack capabilities with Saudi Arabia, a deal that The Washington Post says was authorized by the Israeli government. NSO said in response that "the company develops products that are sold only to authorized government entities."

A month after Haaretz revealed the sale, NSO found itself targeted by a lawsuit launched by Montreal-based Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz, who claims that the firm's software was used to hack his cellphone in order to track conversations with Khashoggi. 

According to the Journal, Mossad Director Yossi Cohen held several meetings with Saudi officials over the past year. One of these meetings, facilitated by the U.S., brought together Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinians intelligence officers in June. Sources also said Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates now "regularly share intelligence of shared threats," including matters related to Iran.

The Saudi government has also facilitated business between the two countries, according to the report. People familiar with the process told WSJ special waivers have been issued to Israeli businessmen, so that they may visit the country without using their Israeli passports.

The mission to forge closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which the Journal calls "a secretive U.S.-backed initiative," has also been impeded by the Saudi crown prince's own alleged role in the murder.

Citing people familiar with the situation, the report says that the international outcry following the killing hampered the prince's "room to maneuver among prospective rivals and dampened appetite for risky foreign policy endeavors such as the outreach to Israel."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that while the murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is "horrific," it does not outweigh the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia.

File photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, December 16, 2018.Credit: Abir Sultan/AFP

"What happened in Istanbul is nothing short of horrific. But it’s balanced by the importance of Saudi Arabia and the role it plays in the Middle East," Netanyahu told foreign reporters at an event in Jerusalem.

"Because if Saudi Arabia would be destabilized, the world, not the Middle East, will be destabilized," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu's response was similar to comments made by U.S. President Donald Trump during an interview to Reuters. "I really hope that people aren't going to suggest that we should not take hundreds of billions of dollars that they're going to siphon off to Russia and to China, primarily those two, instead of giving it to us," he said, while discussing the murder of Khashoggi.

"You're talking about hundreds of thousands of jobs. You're talking about huge military and other contracts. I hope that's not going to be a recommendation," he concluded.

Turkey accused the United States late November of trying to turn a blind eye to the murder of Khashoggi, and dismissed comments from Trump on the issue as "comic".

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said: "This is a humanitarian issue. It concerns a murder. It is not possible to say 'our trade will increase, let's cover this up, let’s ignore it.'" 

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