The Israeli media on Monday created a storm with a report claiming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had flown to Saudi Arabia for a covert meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
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The news did not come as a shock to the world, which has fathomed the possibility of the Kingdom joining the UAE and Bahrain to normalize ties with Israel as inevitable. In fact, MBS is said to have covertly enabled the spate of normalization deals of many Arab states with the Jewish nation in the recent months, brokered by Trump.
However, the Saudi foreign ministry has flatly denied any such meeting took place, with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan soon tweeting, “No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi.”
I have seen press reports about a purported meeting between HRH the Crown Prince and Israeli officials during the recent visit by @SecPompeo. No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi.
— فيصل بن فرحان (@FaisalbinFarhan) November 23, 2020
However, the attempts by Saudi Arabia to cover up the unprecedented visit by the Israeli PM were mostly unsuccessful as even the Israel cabinet minister confirmed that Netanyahu had indeed visited the Islamic nation.
GUARDIAN UK: Benjamin Netanyahu made unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to Israeli cabinet member
— Josh Caplan (@joshdcaplan) November 23, 2020
If Trump succeeds to get MBS to soften ties with Israel, it would be hugely significant, since the Kingdom commands exceptional standing in the Islamic world as the protector of Islamic holy sites. Although it is widely known that secret meetings have been taking place between the top Israeli officials and members of the Saudi royals, but a formal acknowledgment of such ties will invite a severe backlash from conservative sections.
The two countries have no formal diplomatic relations, and publicly, Saudi Arabia has always maintained that it supports normalization but only after an Israel-Palestine peace deal takes place. The Islamic monarchy has, however, significantly softened its tone towards Israel in recent months.
The Kingdom has quietly aided the Trump administration in helping establish full diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan, which was acknowledged by a senior Israeli official to The New York Times. The country also recently opened its airspace to commercial flights operating from Israel to other nations.
Some experts argue that MBS had successfully tested waters by getting the smaller Arab nations to take the historic step first, and gradually the Kingdom itself is on the path to establishing full relations with the Jewish state.
The curious case of Pakistan
Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan inadvertently revealed in an interview recently that Islamabad was under pressure from the US and other countries to recognize and establish ties with Israel. He, however, insisted that Pakistan will not take such a step.
Pakistani PM Imran Khan being pressured to recognize Israel pic.twitter.com/6E9gryf5zR
— LifeRacer (@LifeRacer_1) November 13, 2020
In the interview, Khan said that the source of the pressure from the Trump administration was the deep influence Israel held in the US.
But Khan hesitated when the interviewer asked if a “brotherly Muslim country” had been among those pushing Pakistan on Israel. He replied: “Leave this, let’s move on.” He continued to say that there were certain things he couldn’t say, because the country’s relations with them (the Muslim countries pressuring Pakistan) are good.
“We don’t want to upset them. Inshallah, let our country stand up on its feet, then ask me such questions.”
Khan’s words became instant headlines, triggering a media circus, however, his government later claimed that it was under no pressure to recognize Israel, calling the media reports a “fabrication”.
The “brotherly Muslim country” Khan refrained from naming is Saudi Arabia. According to an article in the Haaretz, which claims to have spoken to a serving Pakistani diplomat and a senior military official, Saudi Arabia was the other key source of pressure on Pakistan, apart from the US.
The recent developments between the two countries give a clear indication that Riyadh has been coercing Islamabad for months, “because Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants “normalization” before Saudi Arabia makes a formal move towards Israel,” says the author of the article in the Haaretz.
Pakistan is the world’s second-most populous Muslim majority state, and the only nuclear-armed one, which would provide a decent scoop for normalization, extending the new geopolitics into South Asia.
And Riyadh’s $2-billion loan, which keeps Pakistan afloat, is what will be used to keep it on a tight leash by the Kingdom. Pakistan will have to try to be in the good books of the Saudis considering the economic distress facing the country, to avoid the latter to refuse to roll over the loan.
Imran Khan when asked about it in the interview, said the loan won’t be forfeited, and he seemed sure about it, adding that “Our relations with Saudi Arabia are perfectly fine.”
Pakistan must not recognise Israel till time Palestinian issue is settled unless we have decided to give up on Kashmir. https://t.co/Uh67iq7zHP
— Abdul Basit (@abasitpak1) November 23, 2020
It’s also speculated that the Pakistani army, which holds sway in the country’s foreign policy, could be supporting the establishment of ties with Israel, with which they want to counter-balance India’s growing defense deals.
In all probability, therefore, the Saudi monarchy may get Pakistan to gradually establish relations with the Jewish state, and there’s nothing they could do about it. However, the growing antagonism against such a move may make matters different for Imran Khan more than they would in Saudi Arabia, where any kind of public opposition is severely prohibited.