• Israel Gulf Report

Joel Rosenberg: Benjamin Netanyahu, Mohammed Bin Salman meeting was a message about Iran

Joel C. Rosenberg is a New York Times best-selling author of novels and non-fiction books about the Middle East, with five million copies in print. A dual U.S.-Israel citizen who lives in Jerusalem, he is also the founder and editor-in-chief of two new websites that went live on September 1st – ALL ISRAEL NEWS (www.allisrael.com) and ALL ARAB NEWS (www.allarab.news).


Rosenberg spoke to Seth J. Frantzman about the recent trip by Israel's Prime Minister to Saudi Arabia. A portion of the interview was published at The Jerusalem Post. All Israel News has also posted a story about it. Below, Rosenberg's full interview is presented.


Let’s start with the trip. It is an extraordinary development that the Prime Minister of Israel and the head of Mossad made a secret trip to Saudi Arabia. Obviously, the trip was never going to be secret. The technology that allows reporters and others to track the routes of aircraft in real time makes it extremely difficult for an Israeli leader to take a secret trip in a private plane to an Arab country, especially one we don’t have diplomatic relations with.


That said, I don’t think anyone in that meeting wanted it to be a secret. Netanyahu and MBS were sending an important signal to the region and the world, and especially to Tehran and Washington. The Israelis and Saudis really are moving closer together. They are on track to normalize relations at some point. And everybody better get used to it and factor it into their strategic calculations.


A first meeting – that we know about – between the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the Prime Minister of Israel was always going to be sensitive. Islamists in the region will hate it and attack it. And Riyadh must gauge how people are reacting to each move, step-by-step, and that is why the Saudi Foreign Minister publicly denied that the meeting happened.

There is no question the meeting happened, so the Foreign Minister’s comments can be taken as a slightly defensive posture that Riyadh isn’t ready to go fully public yet. It is also possible there is a grain of truth in his statement – that they structured it so people were not in the same room together. But we all know it happened. Three sources told me it happened at a senior level. I am confident the meeting happened and I think it is exciting.


I don’t think at this moment that the meeting was primarily about normalization. Certainly that was a part of it. I can see a scenario in which the Saudis move quickly to join the Abraham Accords. But I can also see a scenario in which MBS uses the prospect of normalization with Israel as leverage with the Palestinians, with Israel, and with the incoming Biden team. So, Riyadh might move quickly, but it is just as possible that MBS plays this thing out for a while to accomplish multiple objectives.

I think the main message of the meeting was about Iran. I think what we are watching is the UAE sending a signal to Biden, “Don’t renegotiate the JCPOA without talking to us.” The Bahrainis are saying the same thing. Ambassador Dermer recently said the same thing. And the Saudis are saying the same thing. The fact that MBS would choose this moment to actually meet with Israel’s top leadership is about sending a signal to Tehran and the incoming Biden administration: “An alliance is forming against Iran, and Biden should support it, encourage it, join it, not tilt back towards Tehran.”


Those I speak to who speak to people in the Biden camp, who are briefing them on Middle East issues and so forth, feel reasonably comfortable that the Biden team gets the new lay of the land and is trying to figure out how to move forward.

What will this mean in a year?

I think that everyone in the region at the leadership level is shocked that Trump didn’t win reelection, except for Jordan and the Palestinians. All the Sunni Arab allies of the US that are engaged in the Abraham Accords -- and those like the Saudis, Omanis and Moroccans who are supportive but not there yet -- they are all concerned that Trump has apparently lost the election because they had developed such an effective working relationship with President Trump and his team.


The White house, State Department and Pentagon were working in lockstep on the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, and “maximum peace” campaign with Israel and the Sunni Arabs. And it was working, and now everyone must ask themselves what the election of Joe Biden means for both initiatives. How will Joe Biden deal with Iran? And is he interested in helping other Arab countries make peace with Israel? I don’t think those answers are known.

To be fair, I don’t know that Biden is necessarily, or definitively, going to follow the Obama approach toward Iran. Biden was Vice-President, so it was really Obama’s strategy and not necessarily Biden’s to craft the Iran nuclear deal. Biden was certainly very supportive of the JCPOA. But would he have crafted it the same way? I don’t know. And a lot has happened in the last four years so the Biden team will have to assess what has happened and what has worked and hasn’t.


Those I speak to who speak to people in the Biden camp, who are briefing them on Middle East issues and so forth, feel reasonably comfortable that the Biden team gets the new lay of the land and is trying to figure out how to move forward.


If you are the Saudis, Bahrainis, or Emiratis, you now have to recalibrate and figure out what is next. The Saudis are in the most vulnerable position because Biden has made it clear he is furious with MBS and will “re-assess” the entire US -Saudi relationship. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will go badly for the Saudis, but it doesn’t bode well at this stage.


If you are the Saudis, Bahrainis, or Emiratis, you now have to recalibrate and figure out what is next.

I would also say that President Sisi in Egypt has plenty of reasons to be concerned. It was the Obama – Biden team that were furious with Sisi for liberating Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood and they basically banned Sisi from the White House. Was that just Obama’s decision? Would Biden have handled that differently? How supportive was he of that, and how does he see Sisi now? So that’s something to watch, and Sisi will have to be concerned until he sees how Biden plans to engage with him the US-Egyptian relations.


There are two leaders in the region who are cautiously optimistic about the Biden victory. One is King Abdullah of Jordan, for whom a lot of the rump moves that were pro-Israel created tension for the king and those decisions were hated by the Jordanian street and, of course, by most Palestinians. The other leader who is optimistic for a new lease on life is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Both hope the Biden team will be less provocative toward them and more helpful. I’m particularly sympathetic to the King of Jordan’s position. He has a population that is 70% Palestinian. He’s the longest serving monarch in the Arab world. He’s America’s most faithful Sunni Arab ally – a moderate, a peacemaker. But he’s got a lot of challenges facing him. I’ve described the King as sitting on a volcano, surrounded by a forest fire, bracing for an earthquake. And Trump’s moves like moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, and shutting down a lot of Palestinian funding, the “Vision For Peace” plan – all these created tremors that could have triggered that volcano to blow, for the Arab street in Jordan to erupt. It didn’t, thank God, but now add COVID to the mix, and so much unemployment and economic suffering in Jordan, and you have a recipe for trouble on the other side of the river.


For all the moves that many of us appreciated from Trump here in Israel, those things made the king uncomfortable. He needs US support – militarily and economically – so he was very diplomatic about his concerns with Trump. But it made his life harder.


Could a Biden team cleverly leverage all those pieces and get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table? Could he actually enlist the Saudis to say to the Palestinians, “We will normalize with Israel soon, but you have one more chance – we will hold off for a while if you come back to the table and do negotiations, but we won’t wait forever”? Yes, that is possible, and MBS could probably win some points in the Arab and Muslim world by not being quick to normalize, but giving the Palestinians another chance to reengage. I’m not saying that is what he will do, but we should watch for that.


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