Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal and ex-advisor of Israel’s Premier Benjamin Netanyahu Yaakov Amidror shook hands as they shared stage during a joint conference on Thursday.
The Washington Institute For Near East Policy — which organized the event — described the meeting on its website as a “groundbreaking public dialogue” involving a discussion covering many relevant Middle Eastern political issues for the first time in the history of Saudi-Israeli relations.
“It really is a delight for us to be able to host this event. Of course it has a vital symbolic value, but I don’t think all viewers are here tonight just for the symbolism,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington-based think tank
“I think you are here tonight because these gentlemen have between them decades, nearly a century, of experience in helping their countries navigate the sometimes, shall I say the often, turbulent stormy waters of the Middle East,” Satloff continued.
The United States encountered disagreements with the two countries in recent years over its handling of a series of Middle Eastern issues, mainly its rapprochement with Iran that ended with 2015’s nuclear deal.
Both expressed concern about the recent deal during the conference.
Faisal described the US-Saudi partnership as a “strategic” one, adding that it is not only confined to governments. “We feel a have a special link to the American people,” he said.
He added that the United States had helped Saudi Arabia develop its oil industry — describing it as a “lifeline” for the oil-rich kingdom — though he admitted the challenging nature of finding alternatives to oil.
The Saudi prince spoke about the so-called Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for Israel’s withdrawal from Palestinian territory occupied during the 1967 war, which in return would assure the normalization of relations with Arab states.
He argued that the peace initiative is the best solution for the ongoing problems between Israel and Arab states, CNN Arabic reported.
The initiative, which Israel has continuously rejected, has outlined the creation of a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and envisaged a “just solution of the refugee issue.”
Faisal said that he disagreed with Amidror on that matter, believing that Washington can play a role in the issue.
He added that Amidror sees the issue differently, preferring Saudi-Israeli cooperation as a first step, without focus on other grievances related to the day-to-day lives of the Palestinians, such as continuned settlement expansion.
Yet Amidror argued that Arab states and states backing the Arab League are different from those that existed when the initiative was presented by Saudi Arabia in 2002, arguing that some actors — such as Al-Assad’s regime in Syria or Lebanon — will not partake in negotiations with Israel.
The former Netanyahu advisor said that he is not ruling out a solution on the Palestinian issue, but stated that cooperation with Israel is a better solution, especially considering states in the region are suffering from similar problems, such as Islamic extremism.