A senior Saudi royal has launched a stinging attack on Israel in comments that hinted at tensions in the kingdom over whether it should begin to formalise relations with the Jewish state.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief who is close to King Salman, accused Israel of being the “last of the western colonising powers in the Middle East” in a speech delivered at a regional conference in Bahrain while he participated in a panel with Gabi Ashkenazi, Israeli foreign minister.
His comments came two weeks after Saudi Arabia was embarrassed after details were leaked to the Israeli press of a secret meeting in the kingdom between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Riyadh denied that the pair met, while Israeli officials, who view Saudi Arabia as the main prize in their efforts to secure formal relations with Arab states, described it as “amazing”.
Mr Ashkenazi responded to Prince Turki, who does not hold an official position, by saying he wanted to “express his regret at the comments of the Saudi representative”.
“I don’t believe they reflect the spirit and changes taking place in the Middle East,” Mr Ashkenazi said via video link.
He was the first Israeli official to speak at the Manama Dialogue, an annual security conference, and his participation was made possible after Bahrain followed the United Arab Emirates in agreeing to normalise relations with Israel in September.
Bahrain and the UAE are close allies of Saudi Arabia and speculation has been rife about whether the kingdom would follow suit.
But there have been mixed messages from Saudi Arabia amid the belief that King Salman, who has long been a supporter of the Palestinian cause, was resistant to any such move, while Prince Mohammed, his son and the kingdom’s de facto leader, would be more amenable.
After criticising Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians and for occupying Arab lands, Prince Turki said: “We have heard on numerous occasions from . . . King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem and a fair solution for Palestinian refugees is the only peaceful option for all of us.”
The kingdom was the architect of a 2002 Arab initiative insisting that Israel would have to withdraw from territories occupied in the 1967 war and agree to the creation of a viable Palestinian state before relations were normalised.
The initiative remains the formal position of the Arab League. But analysts say it has been undermined by the UAE’s and Bahrain’s decision to normalise relations with Israel without the Jewish state giving up any of its control of occupied territory.
Weeks after signing its agreements with the two Gulf states, Israel approved the construction of 5,000 housing units in Israeli settlements in occupied territory, which most of the international community considers illegal.
Prince Turki also accused successive Israeli governments of “proffering friendship” to Saudi Arabia while “unleashing their political minions and media hounds from all countries to denigrate and demonise Saudi Arabia”.
When asked, Prince Turki said his comments were not a reflection of differences of opinion in the kingdom.
Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi’s foreign minister, had told the conference on Saturday that Riyadh was “completely open to full normalisation with Israel”.
“But in order for that to happen and for that to be sustainable, we do need the Palestinians to get their state and we do need to settle that situation,” he said.
Emile Hokayem, Middle East expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which organised the conference, said Saudi foreign policy was “considerably less flexible” than those of the smaller Gulf states. He added that the “political and reputational costs of a policy reversal were much higher” for the kingdom.
“Saudi Arabia remains torn between the sources of its influence — its claims of Arab and Islamic leadership — and its aspirations. This is playing out on several issues, of which the Israel-Palestine one is now the most visible,” he said. “The divide is strategic, ideological and political, but also generational.”