WASHINGTON (AP) — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says in an interview with Fox News airing Wednesday that ongoing negotiations over Israel means the prospects of normalized relations between both countries “get closer” every day but that treatment of Palestinians remains a “very important” issue to be resolved.
Saudi Arabia is discussing a major agreement with the United States in which it would normalize relations with Israel in exchange for a U.S. defense pact and aid in developing its own civilian nuclear program. The Saudis have said any deal would require major progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state, which is a hard sell for the most religious and nationalist government in Israel’s history.
Widely known as MBS, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader was asked during an interview on “Special Report with Bret Baier” what it would take to normalize relations with Israel and answered that the Biden administration supports that happening.
“For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part,” he said. In excerpts released ahead of the broadcast, he added that there had been “good negotiations” so far.
“We got to see where we go,” he said. “We hope that will reach a place, that it will ease the life of the Palestinians, get Israel as a player in the Middle East.”
The prince denied reports that the talks had been suspended, saying “every day, we get closer.”
The interview was airing shortly after President Joe Biden met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while both were in New York for the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. Biden raised concerns about the far-right Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians, urging Netanyahu to take steps to improve conditions in the West Bank at a time of heightened violence in the occupied territory.
Netanyahu’s office said afterward that the meeting “mostly dealt with ways to establish an historic peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which could greatly advance an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and facilitate the establishment of an economic corridor to link Asia, the Middle East and Europe.”
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday that it was best for the leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia “to speak to how close they think they are, and where they think they are on the process,” noting that each country has to make “sovereign decisions” and “we respect that.”
“Now, obviously, we encourage normalization. We think it’s good not just for Israel and Saudi Arabia, we think it’s good for the whole region,” Kirby added. “And so we’re going to continue to talk with both parties on this process and try to move it forward just as solemnly as we can.”
Bin Salman has given very few interviews to Western media outlets, particularly since the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist, in an operation by Saudi agents that U.S. intelligence says was likely approved by the prince. The prince has denied any involvement.
In the five years since then, the kingdom has shed whatever pariah status it had as focus has shifted to major diplomatic initiatives and progress on Vision 2030, the prince’s wide-ranging plan for overhauling the economy, providing jobs for young people and weaning the kingdom off oil revenues.
Bin Salman was asked if he was worried that Iran could eventually build a nuclear weapon and said that “we are concerned of any country getting a nuclear weapon.”
“That’s a bad move,” he said. “They don’t need to get nuclear weapon because you cannot use it. Even if Iran get a nuclear weapon, any country use a nuclear weapon that means they are having a war with the rest of the world.”
But pressed on if Iran were to get one, would Saudi Arabia seek to do the same, the prince responded, “we will have to get one.”
Saudi Arabia has made major progress in winding down its devastating war with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, this week hosting a rebel delegation in the capital, Riyadh. It spearheaded the return of Syria to the Arab League, and in March agreed to a Chinese-brokered deal to restore diplomatic relations with Iran, its main regional rival.
The prince’s far-reaching social reforms have transformed the kingdom from an ultraconservative state governed by a strict form of Islamic law to an aspiring entertainment powerhouse, investing billions of dollars in everything from top soccer stars and golf tournaments to video games.
But the prince has proven to be even less tolerant of dissent than his predecessors. Saudis who speak out against his policies, even on anonymous social media accounts with few followers, can face long prison sentences or even the death penalty. The crackdown has even extended to Saudis living on U.S. soil.
The 38-year-old crown prince assumed day-to-day rule after the aging King Salman named him next in line to the throne in 2017, and he could govern the kingdom for decades to come.
Biden, who had vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the Khashoggi killing while campaigning for president in 2020, has since bowed to that reality, patching up relations with the crown prince while seeking his help in controlling oil prices and managing other regional issues.
Saudi Arabia has remained largely neutral on the Ukraine war, providing humanitarian aid to the country and offering itself as a mediator between Moscow and Kyiv. The kingdom maintains good relations with the U.S., China and Russia in order to advance its own national interests.