Saudi crown prince says in rare interview 'every day we get closer' to normalization with Israel

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud attends Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment event on the day of the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, Sept. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Pool)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in a rare interview with Fox News on Wednesday that 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 to 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.

“For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part,” Saudi Arabi’s de facto leader, widely known as MbS, said on “Special Report with Bret Baier” in an interview conducted in English, adding that there had been “good negotiations” so far.

“We got to see where we go,” the prince 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.”

He also denied reports that the talks had been suspended, saying “every day, we get closer.”

The interview aired 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 and urged 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 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.”

Asked during the interview about working with someone as conservative as Netanyahu, Prince Mohammed said: “If we have a breakthrough, reaching a deal that gives the Palestinians their needs and (making) the region calm, we’ve got to work with whoever’s there.”

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters before the interview was shown 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” in the process.

“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 said.

Prince Mohammed was also questioned about the possibility of Iran eventually building a nuclear weapon and said “we are concerned of any country getting a nuclear weapon” and that that if Iran were to get one, Saudi Arabi will seek to do the same: “We will have to get one.” That has worried nuclear nonproliferation experts, who say the U.S. granting the kingdom the ability to enrich uranium itself could fuel a regional arms race.

Prince Mohammed 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.

He said on Fox News Channel of Khashoggi’s killing that “we tried to reform the security system to be sure that these kinds of mistakes doesn’t happen again.”

“It was a mistake. It was painful,” the crown prince said, while insisting that “everyone involved” served jail time.

In the five years since, 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.

Prince Mohammed was also asked about Jared Kushner, an ex-White House adviser and former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law who secured a $2 billion investment from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to jump start his new private equity firm. The prince said “we look” for global investment opportunities and that PIF keeps its commitments to investors — planning to do so even if Trump wins another term as president next year.

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 can face long prison sentences or even the death penalty, and that has even extended to Saudis living on U.S. soil.

The 38-year-old prince assumed day-to-day rule after his aging father King Salman named him next in line to the throne in 2017.

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.

Prince Mohammed said during the interview that “the agenda between Saudi Arabia and America today is really interesting” and characterized his country’s relationship with Biden as “really amazing.”

He was also asked about critics who have accused Saudi Arabia of investing heavily in golf and other sports in attempted “sportswashing,” or spending to improve the kingdom’s political image abroad. The prince said he wasn’t bothered by such charges and if sports investments continue to grow Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product significantly, then his country would “continue to do sportswashing.”