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Saudi king and crown prince at loggerheads over Israel normalisation, report claims

MbS will reportedly not push for a deal with Israel in his father's lifetime [AFP]

Date of publication: 19 September, 2020

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A recent report sheds light on a rift between Saudi Arabia’s royal father-son duo, who are deeply divided over whether the Kingdom should forge a normalisation agreement with Israel.

A rift has emerged between Saudi Arabia’s monarch Salman bin Abdulaziz and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over whether the kingdom should follow Bahrain and the UAE in normalising ties with Israel, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

While King Salman pledges allegiance to the long-standing pan-Arab position of boycotting Israel and supporting Palestinian statehood, Crown Prince MbS sees opportunity in business prospects with Israel and mutual enmity towards Iran, the WSJ report said.

The 84-year-old king was reportedly left "stunned" when US President Donald Trump announced that Israel and the UAE had agreed to establishing full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, according those familiar with the matter, including Saudi advisers.

MbS was apparently less surprised, those people told WSJ. He had not informed his father, fearful of his opposition on the grounds of the deal having no of mention Palestinian statehood, a concession he knew the king would not forgo.

King Salman's anger at the deal is what spurred him to order his foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, to restate the Kingdom's support for independent Palestinian state based on pre-1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The WSJ report notes that despite its challenges, tensions in the Saudi royal court suggest that the kingdom's decades-old pan-Arab position on the Israel-Palestine conflict could change sooner than anticipated.

Younger Saudis are today much less concerned with the Palestinians' plight than their elders, who grew up with the humiliating defeats of two Arab-Israeli war and the unsolved Palestinian question etched into their consciousness.

Additionally, Washington has pressed Saudi Arabia and Israel to come together to reduce the Jewish State's isolation as Washington winds down its military presence in the Middle East. The two sides have maintained security contact for over thirty years, mostly over Iran.

Yet Riyadh has found itself with no choice but to toe a fine line between maintaining its anti-Iran alliance with the US and vowing support for Palestinians, something which is now evident in the division between King Salman and Prince Mohammed.

The king is devoted to the Palestinian cause, according to Saudi analysts and US officials, and maintains close ties to the Palestinian leadership, whom he has given generous financial support for years.

As US President Donald Trump entered office in 2017, King Salman reportedly sent him a message affirming his belief that Israel had a right to exist but that Palestinians had a right to their own state.

He was reportedly disappointed when Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner unveiled an earlier version of the Middle East peace plan, which denied Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem, offering a Palestinian state with limited autonomy in carved-up pockets of the West Bank.

In a conversation with Trump, King Salman reiterated his desire for a solution to the Palestine issued, referencing a 2002 Saudi-backed initiative promising normal relations with Israel only if that happened.

In contrast Prince Mohammed, his son, privately pressured Palestinian leaders to accept the early version of the so-called 'deal of the century', which gave Israel the green light to annex roughly 30 percent of the West Bank. They refused, according to Arab officials.

On the commercial front, MbS told his advisers and diplomats that he hoped Israel would play a major role in spearheading the development of a $500 billion futuristic city-state, NEOM, with investments in biotechnology and cybersecurity.

Joseph W. Westphal, the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia between 2014 and 2017, told WSJ that King Salman’s recourse to pragmatism was possible because of his the king's ailing health, which meant he was no longer "witting to everything that’s going on".

With the Trump administration determined to build on the momentum of the UAE-Israel deal, Jared Kushner pressed the father-son duo to accept a proposal for a normalization deal in palace meeting on Sep 1, but on that occasion Prince Mohammed denied.

He reportedly said that the furthest the Kingdom would go would be to push Bahrain, widely seen as its vassal state, to participate in the deal, according to people familiar with the discussion.

Read also: Bahrain's normalisation deal with Israel is lots of risk for little gain

A senior US official said the prince agreed to open Saudi airspace to Israeli flights in the meeting, and assured Kushner that Bahrain had "clear pathway" to normalisation with Israel.

Two advisers close to the crown prince said he wants to reach a deal with Israel but sees it as an impossibility as long as his father is alive, WSJ report.

State-backed mouthpieces in the Saudi Arabia were directed to ensure coverage of the UAE and Bahraini deals were stellar.

WSJ gained access to a message send to Saudi newspaper editors, which instructed them to defend the moves as "historical and honorable".

One Saudi adviser put it succinctly to WSJ: "He (Prince Mohammed) in testing the waters and preparing Saudis for what is coming next once he becomes king."

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