Rosenberg to 'Post': Netanyahu trip to Saudi Arabia sent signal to region

"Obviously, the trip was never going to be secret."

RIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu greets US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wearing a Stars and Stripes mask (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)
RIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu greets US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wearing a Stars and Stripes mask
(photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)
An extraordinary trip earlier this week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Saudi Arabia was “never going to be secret,” says Joel Rosenberg, an author who has met Arab leaders in the region and spoke to sources about the historic meeting.
“I don’t think anyone in that meeting wanted it to be a secret. Netanyahu and MBS [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] were sending an important signal to the region and the world, and especially to Tehran and Washington. The Israelis and Saudis really are moving closer together. They are on track to normalize relations at some point. And everybody better get used to it and factor it into their strategic calculations.”
Rosenberg is a New York Times best-selling author of novels and non-fiction books about the Middle East. He is a dual US-Israel citizen who lives in Jerusalem. His prolific writing on the region has also led him to meet many of the influential leaders in the region. In 2018, he met the Saudi crown prince as part of a meeting Riyadh hosted with Evangelical Christians. As such, Rosenberg is well placed to understand the intricacies and messaging that is taking place.  
Netanyahu’s trip to Saudi Arabia came after the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and was book ended by important meetings that Netanyahu had with the Bahrain Foreign Minister, prior to the Saudi trip, and Netanyahu greeting the first Fly Dubai commercial UAE flight to land in Israel on November 26. These are unprecedented moves because the normalization with Abu Dhabi and Manama brings with it a rush of new business deals and discussions about partnerships between academic institutions and other new ties. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo helped drive these relationships with a recent trip to the region that is one of many he has done to encourage the emerging alliance of interests between Israel and the Gulf. The Trump administration and its envoys, such as Jason Greenblatt and Avi Berkowitz, as well as Jared Kushner, all played a key role. However, relations with Saudi Arabia appear to be waiting for the next move by Israel.  
“Let’s start with the trip. It is an extraordinary development that the prime minister of Israel and the head of Mossad made a secret trip to Saudi Arabia. Obviously, the trip was never going to be secret. The technology that allows reporters and others to track the routes of aircraft in real time makes it extremely difficult for an Israeli leader to take a secret trip in a private plane to an Arab country, especially one we don’t have diplomatic relations with,” Rosenberg says.  
Today, Rosenberg is the founder of two websites, All Israel News and All Arab News, and is excited to discuss the region, a region that his books, some five million in print, have shed a light on. This is the first meeting that we know about between the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the prime minister of Israel, the author says. Riyadh has denied the meeting took place. It was always going to be sensitive, Rosenberg says. “Islamists in the region will hate it and attack it. And Riyadh must gauge how people are reacting to each move, step by step, and that is why the Saudi foreign minister publicly denied that the meeting happened.”
But the author, who has well placed sources, is sure the meeting happened. Riyadh’s response is a way for them to show they are not ready to go fully public yet. Nevertheless, Saudi media coverage of Israel and flexibility about flights, shows things are changing rapidly. “Three sources told me it happened at a senior level. I am confident the meeting happened and I think it is exciting.”
The meeting was not primarily about normalizing ties, however. Questions remain about whether Riyadh would join the Abraham Accords. The UAE has said that it normalized relations to stop Israel’s annexation. Abu Dhabi has also received support from the Trump administration regarding sales of F-35s to the Emirates. Bahrain had paved the way years ago toward the possibility of ties through pushing coexistence initiatives.  
THE QUESTION is what calculations MBS, the abbreviation of the crown prince’s name, is thinking. It is just as possible that MBS plays this thing out for a while to accomplish multiple objectives. “I think the main message of the meeting was about Iran,” says Rosenberg. This dovetails with other messages from the UAE to the new US president-elect, Joe Biden, encouraging the US not to renegotiate the JCPOA without talking to Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia and its closest allies in the Gulf felt left out by the 2015 Iran Deal. “The Bahrainis are saying the same thing. Ambassador Ron Dermer recently said the same thing. And the Saudis are saying the same thing,” points out Rosenberg. That is why the meeting was important as a signal, at this time after Biden has cleared hurdles to begin the transition process in the US.
The author says that the region was shocked that Trump did not win reelection. “All the Sunni Arab allies of the US that are engaged in the Abraham Accords – and those like the Saudis, Omanis and Moroccans who are supportive but not there yet – they are all concerned that Trump has apparently lost the election because they had developed such an effective working relationship with President Trump and his team.”
This means that the full court press for peace, pushed by the White House, State Department and Pentagon, could change soon. Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller is reportedly arriving in the region soon and Defense Minister Benny Gantz frequently met with his predecessor, Mark Esper.  
Rosenberg wonders aloud about what comes next: “How will Joe Biden deal with Iran? And is he interested in helping other Arab countries make peace with Israel? I don’t think those answers are known. To be fair, I don’t know that Biden is necessarily, or definitively, going to follow the Obama approach toward Iran,” he notes. The Biden team will have to assess what has happened and what has worked and hasn’t, Rosenberg says. “Those I speak to who speak to people in the Biden camp, who are briefing them on Middle East issues and so forth, feel reasonably comfortable that the Biden team gets the new lay of the land and is trying to figure out how to move forward.”
That means the pro-peace Gulf states must recalibrate and figure out what is next. Riyadh is vulnerable because Biden has been critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the war in Yemen. Rosenberg also sees challenges for Egypt and its leader Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Already criticism of Egypt for human rights issues has increased in Washington. More is sure to come. “It was the Obama–Biden team that were furious with Sisi for liberating Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood and they basically banned Sisi from the White House. Was that just Obama’s decision? Would Biden have handled that differently,” Rosenberg asks. He is referring to the mass protests in Egypt in 2013, when Sisi stepped in to remove Mohammed Morsi from power. Obama had spoken in Cairo in 2009 and Egypt was the centerpiece of US policymaking.  
ON THE other hand, some leaders are more pleasantly surprised by the Biden win. The king of Jordan, Abdullah, had a good relationship with Trump in 2017, but things soured after the embassy move. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t speak to the US. “I’m particularly sympathetic to the king of Jordan’s position. He has a population that is 70% Palestinian. He’s the longest serving monarch in the Arab world. He’s America’s most faithful Sunni Arab ally – a moderate, a peacemaker,” says Rosenberg.
“I’ve described the king as sitting on a volcano, surrounded by a forest fire, bracing for an earthquake. And Trump’s moves, like moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, and shutting down a lot of Palestinian funding, the ‘Vision For Peace’ plan – all these created tremors that could have triggered that volcano to blow.” This is now combined with the pandemic and economic problems. Jordan needs support. “For all the moves that many of us appreciated from Trump here in Israel, those things made the king uncomfortable. He needs US support – militarily and economically – so he was very diplomatic about his concerns with Trump.”
What might come next is now Riyadh’s decision. It could normalize, but it could seek to wait to win some points in the Arab and Muslim world by not being quick to normalize, Rosenberg says. That could mean “giving the Palestinians another chance to re-engage. I’m not saying that is what he will do, but we should watch for that.”