Incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu went on a charm offensive inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia this week.
His mission: to expand the circle of the Abraham Accords.
As much as he loved forging historic peace and normalization deals with four Arab countries in 2020 – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco – Netanyahu wants more.
In his first-ever interview with a Saudi newspaper, the 73-year-old Israeli leader said one of his top foreign policy priorities upon re-taking office will be to pursue an even more historic and transformative peace deal with Riyadh.
“I think the peace with Saudi Arabia will serve two purposes,” Netanyahu told Al Arabiya’s English-language daily in an exclusive conversation. “It will be a quantum leap for an overall peace between Israel and the Arab world, it will change our region in ways that are unimaginable,” he said, “and I think it will facilitate, ultimately, a Palestinian-Israeli peace. I believe in that. I intend to pursue it.”
Netanyahu specifically said he believes peace with Saudi Arabia will motivate Palestinians to bring their conflict with Israel to an end, something to which he looks forward, he said.
So far, the Saudi government has not commented on the interview.
However, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – often referred to by his initials, “MBS” – has indicated in various public interviews in recent years his believe that Israel has the right to live as a safe, sovereign and prosperous state in the Middle East and that he is not opposed to moving closer towards the Jewish state, so long as Israelis make peace with the Palestinians.
What’s more, MBS notably did not oppose the Abraham Accords.
In fact, MBS and his government have tacitly supported – even encouraged – such Arab-Israeli peace-making in recent years, even allowing Israeli planes to fly through Saudi airspace to and from the UAE and Bahrain.
And, as I wrote about in my book last year, “Enemies & Allies,” Netanyahu secretly met personally with the Saudi Crown Prince exactly two years ago this month, in December 2020. They were joined by then-Mossad chief Eli Cohen and then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The interview, published yesterday by Al Arabiya, was lengthy, intriguing, and quite illuminating.
Covering a wide range of subjects, it gave Saudi citizens – as well as people throughout the region – an inside look at Netanyahu’s thinking on matters of high interest to the 400 million Arabs who live in the Middle East and North Africa.
To read the full transcript of the interview, please click here.
To watch the video of the interview on YouTube, please click here.
The following are a few noteworthy excerpts.
NETANYAHU PLANS TO URGE U.S. PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN TO IMPROVE U.S. RELATIONS WITH SAUDI ARABIA
- “I can also say that I think one of my main goals would be to speak with my friend of 40 years, President Biden. And I’m going to tell him that I think that there is a need for a reaffirmation of America’s commitment to its traditional allies in the Middle East. Israel, of course, is there and we’ve had a solid, unbreakable relationship. But I think that the alliance, the traditional alliance with Saudi Arabia and other countries, has to be reaffirmed. There should not be periodic swings, or even wild swings in this relationship, because I think that the alliance between America’s allies and with America is the anchor of stability in our region. I think it requires periodic reaffirmation and I’m to speak to President Biden about it.”
NETANYAHU PUSHES BACK AT VIEW HIS NEW GOVERNMENT WILL INCITE VIOLENCE AMONG PALESTINIANS
- “Well, first of all, I disagree with the premise of your questions. I didn’t hand over great powers in Judea-Samaria, the West Bank, not at all. In fact, all the decisions will be made by me and the defense minister, and that’s actually in the coalition agreement. So there’s a lot of misinformation about that…..”
- “I think my record speaks for itself; the last decade in which I led Israel was the safest decade in Israel’s history. But not only safe and secure for Israelis, also safe and secure for the Palestinians. Because there’s been the least loss of life on both sides and that’s not accidental. It’s because of a policy of security that I’ve led, which has actually resulted in more peace and economic possibilities. And by the way, in the year that I left government and the outgoing government was in power, things changed immediately. We had an eruption of violence like we had not seen since 2008, a year before I returned to office. My policy is one of stability, peace, prosperity and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike. I think that [this] record not only speaks for itself, it also speaks for the future. I will govern and I will lead, and I will navigate this government. The other parties are joining me, I’m not joining them. Remember Likud is one-half of this coalition. The other parties are, some of them are 1/4, 1/5 the size of the Likud. They’re joining us; they will follow my policy.”
NETANYAHU SAYS HE HAS INVESTED HEAVILY IN ARAB ISRAELI COMMUNITIES AND SECURITY
- “I actually invested in the Arab communities in Israel more than any of the previous governments combined. Investments where investments should go – in education and infrastructure, in transportation, and the quality of life, in governance. Because a lot of them are complaining about the eruption of crime that makes their life hell. So I’ve invested in that too. I opened 11 police stations in Arab communities in Israel in the decade between 2010 and 2020 at the request of the community. [Do] you know, how many we had before? One. So I increased it by tenfold, both for security, for the ability for youngsters. I want every young Arab boy or Arab girl in Israel to have the same opportunities to partake in the remarkable success story that is Israel. And therefore I’ve encouraged that, and will continue to encourage that.”
NETANYAHU SAYS PEACE WITH THE SAUDIS CAN LEAD TO PEACE WITH THE PALESTINIANS
- “The reason we’ve not had an Israeli-Palestinian peace is because the Palestinians have refused to do, and I think tragically their leadership for the last century has refused to do, what is finally happening in the rest of the Arab world. And that is to recognize that the State of Israel is here to stay. I think coming to a solution with the Palestinians will require out-of-the-box thinking, will require new thinking. The reason we got the historic Abraham Accords is that we got out of this mode that Mahmoud Abbas wants to stay in, and that is to, you know, to mount the same lines, to go through the same rabbit holes, not to seek new ways. In fact, it’s when we started thinking about things in a new way that we broke the cycle of paralysis that paralyzed [attempts at] peace for a quarter of a century.”
- “Now, I think paradoxically – I don’t think it’s paradoxical, but other people do – that as we expand the number of countries that make peace with us, it actually helps bring about at the end a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Everybody said “No, first you have to solve the Palestinian problem, otherwise, you won’t get peace with the Arab world.” I said it may be the other way around. It may be that as you expand the peace with the Arab states, you’ll be able to actually get to the peace with the Palestinians and I firmly believe that. But I will say this, I think we face a possibility of not merely an expansion of the peace; I think we can have a new peace initiative that will form a quantum leap for the achievement for the resolution of both the Arab-Israeli conflict and ultimately, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And of course, I’m referring to what could be a truly remarkable historic peace with Saudi Arabia.”
- “I’m committed to deepening and strengthening the remarkable Abraham Accords that we’ve had with our neighbors, but I think the peace with Saudi Arabia will serve two purposes. It will be a quantum leap for an overall peace between Israel and the Arab world. It will change our region in ways that are unimaginable. And I think it will facilitate, ultimately, a Palestinian-Israeli peace. I believe in that. I intend to pursue it. Of course, it’s up to the to the leadership of Saudi Arabia if they want to partake in this effort. I certainly hope they would.”
NETANYAHU SAYS HIS GOAL IS TO END THE ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT – BUT NEW THINKING IS NEEDED
- “It was under my government, not the previous left-led government, that we reduced dramatically the number of security checkpoints, we increased the number of passages that enabled 150,000 Palestinians from the territories to come and work every day. And you know I never shut that down even during periods of tension and terror. I said “no, they have to be able to earn a living, be able to care for their families, be able to move around.” I’ve encouraged investments, joint ventures, in high-tech between Israeli entrepreneurs and Palestinian entrepreneurs, the building of a Palestinian city, Rawabi, and other things. These are practical things that I say.”
- “But I’m not here to tell you that an economic peace is a substitute for political peace. I believe that the reason we’ve not had a political peace, we couldn’t move forward, is because the Palestinian leadership still refuses to accept the right of the State of Israel to exist. That remains the problem. If you keep looking at other places, you’re not going to find a solution. I hope that [this] will change. I think that the growing circle of peace between Israel and Arab states and the quantum leaps that we can have in a peace with Saudi Arabia will also convince the Palestinians – the Palestinian leadership – because I think quite a few of the Palestinian people already are there… to adopt a different attitude towards accepting the State of Israel. And once that happens, then many things can happen. I think we should move forward creatively. We should have talks about it.”
- “The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 was an indication that there is a willingness, in those days, to think about how to get out of the straitjacket and to get to a comprehensive peace. I think things have changed, things have moved. But the need to have this kind of new thinking is important. And again, if we stick to the old grooves, we’ll be stuck in the old groove. If we think about new ways, then I think the sky’s the limit. And I mean that; it’s limitless actually.”