A prominent Saudi prince harshly criticised Israel at a Bahrain security summit that was remotely attended by Israel’s foreign minister, showing the challenges any further deals between Arab states and Israel face in the absence of an independent Palestinian state.
The fiery remarks by Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud at the Manama Dialogue appeared to catch Israel’s foreign minister off guard, particularly as Israelis receive warm welcomes from officials in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates following agreements to normalise ties.
Left unresolved by those deals, however, is the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians view those pacts as a stab in the back from their fellow Arabs and a betrayal of their cause.
Prince Turki bin Faisal opened his remarks by contrasting what he described as Israel’s perception of being “peace-loving upholders of high moral principles” versus what he described as a far-darker Palestinian reality of living under a “Western colonising” power.
Israel has “incarcerated [Palestinians] in concentration camps under the flimsiest of security accusations – young and old, women and men, who are rotting there without recourse to justice”, Prince Turki said.
“They are demolishing homes as they wish and they assassinate whomever they want.”
‘An open wound’
The prince also criticised Israel’s undeclared arsenal of nuclear weapons and the Israeli government’s “unleashing their political minions and their media outlets from other countries to denigrate and demonise Saudi Arabia”.
In unusually blunt language, he accused Israel of depicting itself as a “small, existentially threatened country, surrounded by bloodthirsty killers who want to eradicate her from existence”.
“And yet they profess that they want to be friends with Saudi Arabia,” he said.
The prince reiterated the kingdom’s official position that the solution lies in implementing the Arab Peace Initiative, a 2002 Saudi-sponsored deal that offers Israel full ties with all Arab states in return for Palestinian statehood on territory Israel captured in 1967.
He added: “You cannot treat an open wound with palliatives and pain killers.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who spoke immediately after Prince Turki, said: “I would like to express my regret on the comments of the Saudi representative. I don’t believe that they reflect the spirit and the changes taking place in the Middle East.”
The confrontation and a later back-and-forth between Prince Turki and a confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the summit highlighted continued widespread opposition to Israel by many inside Saudi Arabia, despite some state-backed efforts to promote outreach with Jewish groups and supporters of Israel.
Ashkenazi, meanwhile, reiterated Israel’s position that it is the Palestinians who are to be blamed for not reaching a peace deal.
“We have a choice here with the Palestinians whether to solve it or not, or to go to this blame game,” said Ashkenazi, an ally of Netanyahu’s chief rival, Benny Gantz.
Dore Gold, a Netanyahu confidant and former UN ambassador in the audience, implied Prince Faisal’s remarks were “accusations of the past – many of which are false”.
The prince later brought up Gold’s previous television appearances “denigrating the kingdom and using the most vile descriptions”.
“I think Mr Dore Gold should be the last one to talk about having previous beliefs and positions here,” the prince said.
Prince Turki led Saudi intelligence for more than 20 years and served as ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom.
Though he now holds no official position, his stance is seen as closely mirroring that of King Salman.
However, the king’s assertive son, the 35-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is seen having a greater willingness to quietly engage with Israel to counter common rival Iran and boost foreign investment in the kingdom.
‘Not an easy ride’
Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, also on stage for the tense exchanges, sought to smooth over the differences in his remarks.
Still, he too stressed the importance of a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on a two-state solution as envisaged by the Arab Peace Initiative.
“The path of peace is not an easy ride. There will be a lot of obstacles along the way,” he said. “There will be ups and downs. But the bedrock of that path, the path of peace, is the Israeli-Palestinian issue.”
In an apparent reference to Iran, al-Zayani added a resolution to the conflict would also remove the pretext to justify some of the threats made to regional security.
Despite Prince Turki’s blunt rhetoric, mutual concern over Iran has gradually brought Israel and Gulf nations closer, and Riyadh itself has quietly been building relations with the Jewish state for several years.
Reports last month that Netanyahu had held secret talks in Saudi Arabia fuelled speculation that a normalisation accord with the Gulf’s top power could be in the making. Riyadh, however, denied the meeting occurred.
‘Need to see a settlement’
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told the AFP news agency on Saturday the kingdom’s position remained resolute.
“We’ve been quite clear that in order for us to proceed with normalisation we will need to see a settlement of the Palestinian dispute and the formation of a viable state of Palestine along the lines envisioned in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative,” he said in an interview in Manama.
Asked whether that effectively ruled out the establishment of ties with Israel any time soon, he said he was “optimistic that there is a path towards a resolution between the Palestinians and Israelis”.