The quasi-clandestine meeting last Sunday in north-western Saudi Arabia between the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a first. It is probably premature to call it historic; the late King Hussein of Jordan held 45 secret meetings with the Israelis over three decades before signing a peace treaty in 1994 that was historic.
The dalliance by Prince Mohammed — day-to-day ruler of the kingdom — is puzzling, even if he intends eventually to join other Gulf countries in normalising relations with Israel.
Both sides were coy about the encounter. Mr Netanyahu parried away confirmation of an event he probably authorised allies to leak. Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, denied it had taken place, but mainly in reiteration of the kingdom’s official position on the Israeli-Palestinian question — the Arab peace initiative of 2002.
That offers full normalisation with Israel after it withdraws from all occupied Arab land and the Palestinians get a state on the West Bank with occupied Arab East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel has always treated it as a non-starter.
Detente with Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni Arab power, would therefore be a huge diplomatic coup for Israel in the Middle East, qualitatively different to this year’s breakthroughs with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan. The kingdom is the birthplace of Islam and the world’s biggest oil exporter. It would be the big prize for Israel, and normal relations with the Jewish state are an incalculably valuable asset for the Saudis to trade.
But it is hard to understand why Prince Mohammed, however much he proclaims that his rule is about embracing the future, has made this move now.
There has been talk before of a meeting with Mr Netanyahu, particularly this summer. Saudi sources say the crown prince, watching US president Donald Trump sink in opinion polls, was wary of a gesture that would look like backing him in this month’s election and incur the enmity of an administration led by Joe Biden. The Democrat has already called for a reassessment of the US’s alliance with Saudi Arabia. He labelled the kingdom a “pariah” after the 2018 murder of dissident columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a hit-squad the CIA believe answered to the crown prince.
The careful ambiguity surrounding the meeting might mean Riyadh is delaying any more definitive diplomatic moves until Mr Biden is in office. Yet this encounter was arranged and attended by Mike Pompeo, Mr Trump’s secretary of state, who is seen in the Biden camp as more geopolitical arsonist than diplomat.
In his recent tour of the Middle East, Mr Pompeo seemed intent on making it more difficult for Mr Biden to deliver changes to US policy in the region. The president-elect wants to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal the US and five world powers reached with Iran — from which Mr Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018. He also wants to brake Israel’s unilateral annexation of Palestinian land, endorsed by Mr Trump.
Mr Netanyahu, on trial on corruption charges and probably facing another election next year, may be even less cautious than his impetuous Saudi friend. In 2015, after all, he brazenly called on the US Congress to prevent or repudiate the Iran accord, the signature diplomatic achievement of Mr Biden’s former boss Barack Obama.
Mr Biden’s putative plans for the Middle East so far amount to a qualified return to previous policies. But the beleaguered Israeli premier and a Saudi crown prince who excites bipartisan antagonism in Congress bet massively on Mr Trump. And now they appear to be challenging his successor, with a sort of Israel-Sunni Arab front, telling him he cannot go back to the status quo ante on Iran.
Prince Mohammed, Saudi sources add, may think Mr Netanyahu can act as his advocate in Washington, especially by going around the White House to Congress. The Obama administration, after all, backed down in its bitter confrontation over illegal West Bank settlements with the Israeli premier, as well as over Syria and other US challenges in the Middle East. Mr Biden, then vice-president, is thought by some to be cut from the same cloth. But that is still a risky bet.
Get alerts on Middle Eastern politics & society when a new story is published