Former Saudi and Israeli officials spar in rare public debate
In a rare public debate, former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud and retired Israeli Major-General Yaakov Amidror sparred over pressing Middle East geopolitical issues.
Appearing at a May 5th event sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think-tank, the pair were asked about what has been dubbed the Obama doctrine, US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy that advocates disengagement in the Middle East. Although neither man currently holds an official position, both are known to be knowledgeable on their respective government’s outlook on regional issues.
Obama has also labelled traditional allies in the Middle East and beyond as burdens and not assets. In a recent interview, he called some Arab and European allies “free riders”.
“In Saudi Arabia, America is a strategic partner,” Faisal said, “and it is a partnership that is not just confined to the governments.” However, the former head of Saudi intelligence acknowledged that the long-standing relationship was being tested.
“There needs to be a re-evaluation and a recalibration,” Faisal said regarding Obama’s retrenchment in the Middle East. Faisal emphasised that both countries have changed since the Gulf war to liberate Kuwait 25 years ago.
“We have to work together to figure out where we’re going. I think both of us recognise that we have common interests that bind us together, whether it is fighting terrorism, whether it is engaging in improving peace in the area,” he added.
Both Faisal and Amidror expressed reservations and concerns over the Iran nuclear deal.
“Either it will be a violation of the agreement or, towards the end of the agreement after ten or 15 years, in principle the Iranians can go nuclear,” said Amidror, a former adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “This is a threat to our existence and we will not allow it to happen; with the Americans, without the Americans.”
Faisal had similar sentiments regarding what happens after the agreement ends. “The Gulf Cooperation Council must consider all options, including the acquisition of nuclear weapons, to face whatever eventuality may come from Iran.”
He also said the best solution would be a nuclear-free Middle East.
Sparks flew and the diplomatic jargon disappeared when the two former officials clashed over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I can’t understand why the Netanyahu government doesn’t seek to grab that offer that was presented in 2002 and work with not just the US, but with the Arab world in establishing peace,” Faisal said, referring to the 2002 Arab peace initiative proposed by then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, which was endorsed by the Arab League.
The initiative calls for normalising relations between the Arab region and Israel, in exchange for a complete withdrawal by Israel from the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee issue based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
“There is no requirement for divine revelation or Einsteinian genius to know what peace is — two states, mutual swaps, mutual recognition and engaging with each other,” the former Saudi ambassador to Washington said.
Amidror retorted that the issue was not Netanyahu’s fault and that a number of Israeli leaders had failed to reach an agreement because of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Faisal countered that Netanyahu “doesn’t even recognise the two-state solution anymore”, referring to Netanyahu’s 2015 election pledge that a Palestinian state would never materialise under his watch.
“Nothing can substitute for the feeling of being who I am,” Faisal said. “I am a Saudi and I have a nation and I have a people and I have a flag and I have a history and so on. Why do we deny that to the Palestinians? That is something that Israel has to reconcile itself to.”
Faisal earlier repeated an open invitation to those at the think-tank to visit Saudi Arabia. Amidror asked if the invitation was also extended to him and the former Saudi intelligence chief replied: “Well, sign the peace (agreement) first and then you can come.”