Saudi prince slams Israel in panel with Ashkenazi

Ashkenazi took part in the panel on “new security partnerships in the Middle East” via video link from the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (R) and Bahraini Industry, Commerce and Tourism Minister Zayed bin Rashid Al Zayani, December 2, 2020 (photo credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM/GPO)
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (R) and Bahraini Industry, Commerce and Tourism Minister Zayed bin Rashid Al Zayani, December 2, 2020
(photo credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM/GPO)
Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal accused Israel of colonialism and apartheid, while Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi merely expressed “regret” at the comments during a panel discussion on Sunday that also included Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani.
“All Israeli governments are the last of the colonizing powers in the Middle East,” bin Faisal said at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Manama Dialogue in Bahrain’s capital.
Ashkenazi, who was ensconced at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, took part via video link in the panel on “new security partnerships in the Middle East.”
The Saudi prince accused Israel of establishing an “apartheid wall” in the West Bank, of “demolishing homes as they wish, and assassinating whoever they want,” of having 20 nuclear weapons and of “denying non-Jewish residents equality under law. What kind of democracy is that?” he said.
He reiterated statements from Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) that Riyadh would only establish diplomatic relations with Jerusalem if the latter accepted the 2002 Arab Peace Plan, which involves a full withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines, a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem and a “fair settlement for Palestinians refugees,” which is generally understood to be a euphemism for allowing some to live in Israel.
Prince Turki said that only after making peace with the Palestinians “can we together meet the other colonizing pretender that boasts of its control of Arab capitals, Beirut, Damascus and Sanaa,” meaning Iran.
The sharp tone from the Saudi prince came after reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MBS met in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a denial that did not directly address what had been reported, and Yediot Aharonot reported on Friday that a meeting between Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and MBS planned for this week had been canceled because the meeting with Netanyahu had been leaked.
A Foreign Ministry source said that Ashkenazi was taken aback by the Saudi prince’s tone, as were his Bahraini interlocutors, who had invited them to a panel on cooperation and partnerships.
Out of deference to the Bahraini hosts, Ashkenazi chose not to escalate and merely expressed “regret for the comments” Prince Turki made.
“I don’t think they reflect the spirit and the changes taking place in the Middle East,” Ashkenazi added.
He also thanked Saudi Arabia, saying that without the kingdom’s approval, the Abraham Accords, in which Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates normalized ties with Israel, could not have happened.
Later in the panel, Ashkenazi added: “We can play the blame game of the past, or we can take opportunities for peace.”
Most of Ashkenazi’s remarks focused on the hope that the Abraham Accords would bring a better future to the Middle East, and called for more countries to join.
“The Middle East today is divided into two clear camps,” Ashkenazi said. “Those that have chosen peace and a better future for their children of economic prosperity and security, and on the other side, those led by Iran and its proxies who have chosen the path of war, violent extremism and terrorism.”
Ashkenazi said that in the years since the Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2015, the Middle East has been deeply destabilized and Tehran has spread “havoc and misery.”
“All of us are committed to the goal of indefinitely blocking all paths of Iran to the bomb and stopping its regional malign activity... Indefinite does not go hand-in-hand with sunset [clauses],” Ashkenazi said, pointing to a key part of the 2015 Iran Deal that US President-elect Joe Biden reiterated last week that he would seek to rejoin.
“The months to come will be significant in the future of the region,” Ashkenazi added, a possible reference to Biden’s policies when he enters office next month.
Ashkenazi also called on the Palestinians to enter direct negotiations with Israel without preconditions.
“We believe that Israel moving from annexation to normalization is a window to resolve this conflict,” he stated.
In response to a question soon after, Prince Turki called settlements “a precondition” and suggested that they should all be removed before Israel enters negotiations with the Palestinians. About 450,000 Israelis live in Judea and Samaria.
Dore Gold, a former Foreign Ministry director-general and president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, confronted Prince Turki when the panel was opened to questions, saying: “Shifts in thinking about how we look at the Middle East, given the emotions that our nations have gone through, are very difficult. I’m addressing my comments chiefly to His Royal Highness Prince Turki al-Faisal because I believe he comes from a country that has the capability of leading the region in a very positive direction.
“But we have to decide,” Gold added. “Do we want to be caught up in the accusations of the past, many of which are false, or do we want to present the young generation in the Middle East with a positive vision and really give leadership for a better future? I prefer the latter, and I know my national leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, prefers the latter.”
Prince Turki spoke out against Gold personally, bringing up his 2003 book, Hatred’s Kingdom, on Saudi sponsorship of terrorism, saying Gold “denigrated the king and used the most vile descriptions.”
Gold said later, in a phone call from Manama: “I cherish the agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan, but if anyone gets up there and lies about Israel, the gloves are off… I wanted to defend Israel in front of the international audience in Bahrain.”
Gold approached Prince Turki after the session, and the prince asked him if he still believes what he wrote in the book. In response, Gold said that in the ensuing years, Saudi Arabia stopped funding Hamas.
During the Second Intifada, when Palestinian suicide bombings against Israelis were rampant, Saudi Arabia paid 50-70% of Hamas’s budget, according to Israeli military intelligence, Gold said. They then stopped that funding and Iran became the chief financial backer of Hamas.
 “That altered my attitude toward the Saudis,” Gold explained. “Moreover, Saudi Arabia stopped funding the Muslim Brotherhood, as well.”
Gold also told the prince that he would be willing to debunk the falsehoods Prince Turki said about Israel and would be willing to debate him at any time.
As for a question Gold asked during the open panel about whether Israel and Saudi Arabia can learn from each other’s fights against Iranian proxies – Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen – Prince Turki said both “carry the banner of ‘free Palestine’” and resolving that matter would “really go a long way as a mitigating incentive to these terrorist groups.”
Turki has long been dogged by accusations of ties with Osama bin Laden, and was named in a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit by 9/11 victims’ families. However, the prince maintains his last contact with Bin Laden was in 1990, and a US federal court ruled Saudi officials immune from related lawsuits.