Middle East

Saudi crown prince says normalization deal with Israel gets ‘closer’ every day

By Nadeen Ebrahim, CNN

Abu Dhabi, UAE CNN  —  Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) said that his country was moving “closer” each day toward reaching a normalization deal with Israel, the first time he has publicly acknowledged the process.

“Every day we get closer” to reaching an agreement, the 38-year-old heir to the Saudi throne told Fox News in an interview that aired Wednesday. “It seems it’s for the first time a real one, serious. We’re gonna see how it goes.”

The Biden administration has for several months been in talks with Saudi Arabia on the matter, according to US officials. A deal would represent a significant foreign policy victory for the president and has the potential to enhance Israel’s acceptance in the Muslim world, particularly considering Saudi Arabia’s role as the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites. MBS said a pact with Israel would be “the biggest historical deal since the Cold War.”

Asked about the kingdom’s demands for normalization, MBS said he hopes the deal will “reach a place that will ease the life of the Palestinians,” stopping short calling for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, which has been Riyadh’s official stance for two decades.

Most Arab and Islamic states don’t recognize Israel. The kingdom proposed an “Arab Peace initiative” in 2002, which offered Israel security and “normal relations” with 57 Arab and Muslim countries in exchange for its withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territories and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Israel rejected the initiative.

“For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part,” MBS said, adding that he wants to see Israel as a “player in the Middle East.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made normalization with the kingdom a priority for his government, but it is unclear how his right-wing coalition will react to any demands from Saudi Arabia for concessions to the Palestinians. The government, which includes some far-right ministers and settlers, has called for extending Israel’s sovereignty in the occupied West Bank, which the Palestinians want for a future state.

MBS said that if a deal is reached with Israel, his country is willing to work with whoever is in power, including Netanyahu.

US President Joe Biden and Netanyahu on Wednesday met for the first time since the prime minister returned to office last December. A senior US official told CNN Wednesday that the two leaders discussed normalization efforts “in some depth.”

“We have made some progress, but it’s difficult and there’s some ways to travel with us before we get there,” the official said, adding that “it’s obvious that a move like this by Saudi Arabia will require a component dealing with the fundamental between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Asked by Fox News’ Bret Baier what concessions Israel would have to give Palestinians for Riyadh to agree on a deal, MBS declined to answer, saying “these are part of the negotiations.”

If Iran gets a nuclear bomb, ‘we have to get one’

MBS also sought to strike a conciliatory tone on Iran during the interview, saying Tehran had been taking the issue of mending ties with his country “very seriously.”

“They are doing their best, so we are investing in that,” MBS said, adding that the kingdom wanted to see Iran progress.

MBS however drew a line at Iran’s potential procurement of a nuclear weapon, reiterating his previous threat that it would force the kingdom to pursue the bomb.

“If they get one, we have to get one,” MBS said. “But we don’t want to see that.”

The regional archrivals ended nearly eight years of hostility in a landmark deal to reestablish diplomatic ties that was mediated by China in March. MBS told Fox that the kingdom did not choose China to broker the agreement, but that Beijing had “chosen” to do it. Saudi Arabia has been strengthening its ties with China as Washington’s rivalry with the Asian nation heats up.

During the interview, the crown prince also made a veiled threat to the White House, suggesting that the kingdom could seek other security partners if the US does not meet its requirements as part of the Israeli normalization talks.

Riyadh is seeking concessions from the US in exchange for its potential recognition of Israel in the form of security guarantees and help with its civilian nuclear program, CNN has reported.

Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been concerned about what they perceive as waning US interest in their security, fears the White House has repeatedly sought to dispel.

“They don’t want to see Saudi Arabia shifting their armament from America to another place,” MBS said.

“We are the biggest buyer of American armored manufacturing,” he said, adding that Saudi Arabia is “critical” to US arms exports.

“We have a lot of security and military ties that really strengthen the position of Saidi Arabia in the Middle East and strengthen the position of America globally, especially in the Middle East,” he said. “You don’t want that to be shifted.”

BRICS not aligned against the West

The kingdom was among six nations invited last month to join the BRICS group of developing nations led by China and Russia. The Saudi foreign minister at the time said his country would take an “appropriate decision” accordingly.

MBS was keen to dispel the idea that the bloc had an anti-Western agenda, saying “BRICS is not about political alignments…BRICS is not a group against America or the West,” he said.

Saudi Arabia has also been on the receiving end of international criticism for its controversial human rights record, from a crackdown on activists at home to the murder and dismemberment of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The CIA concluded that MBS ordered the killing of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The prince has denied personal involvement in the murder.

Last month, a Saudi man was sentenced to death for his posts on social media, causing an outcry from rights groups.

MBS acknowledged that his country has “bad laws,” that needed changing, and said the judicial system will take time to reform. Saudi Arabia is in the process of changing laws to make them “more realistic” for Saudis, he said.

CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.

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