DUBAI – A prominent Saudi prince harshly criticized Israel on Sunday at a Bahrain security summit that was remotely attended by Israel's foreign minister, showing the challenges any further deals between Arab states and Israel face in the absence of an independent Palestinian state.
The fiery remarks by Prince Turki al-Faisal at the Manama Dialogue appeared to catch Israel's foreign minister off guard, particularly as Israelis receive warm welcomes from officials in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates following agreements to normalize ties.
Left unresolved by those deals, however, is the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians view those pacts as a stab in the back from their fellow Arabs and a betrayal of their cause.
Prince Turki opened his remarks by contrasting what he described as Israel's perception of being “peace-loving upholders of high moral principles” versus what he described as a far-darker Palestinian reality of living under a "Western colonizing” power.
Israel has “incarcerated (Palestinians) in concentration camps under the flimsiest of security accusations — young and old, women and men, who are rotting there without recourse to justice," Prince Turki said. "They are demolishing homes as they wish and they assassinate whomever they want.”
The prince also criticized Israel's undeclared arsenal of nuclear weapons and Israeli governments "unleashing their political minions and their media outlets from other countries to denigrate and demonize Saudi Arabia.”
The prince reiterated the kingdom's official position that the solution lies in implementing the Arab Peace Initiative, a 2002 Saudi-sponsored deal that offers Israel full ties with all Arab states in return for Palestinian statehood on territory Israel captured in 1967.
He added: “You cannot treat an open wound with palliatives and pain killers”
Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who spoke immediately after Prince Turki, said: “I would like to express my regret on the comments of the Saudi representative.”
“I don’t believe that they reflect the spirit and the changes taking place in the Middle East,” he said.
The confrontation and a later back-and-forth between Prince Turki and a confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the summit highlighted continued widespread opposition to Israel by many inside Saudi Arabia, despite some state-backed efforts to promote outreach with Jewish groups and supporters of Israel.
Ashkenazi, meanwhile, reiterated Israel's position that it is the Palestinians who are to be blamed for not reaching a peace deal.
"We have a choice here with the Palestinians whether to solve it or not, or to go to this blame game,” said Ashkenazi, an ally of Netanyahu's chief rival, Benny Gantz.
Dore Gold, a Netanyahu confidant and former U.N. ambassador in the audience, implied Prince Faisal's remarks were “accusations of the past — many of which are false.” The prince later brought up Gold's previous television appearances "denigrating the kingdom and using the most vile descriptions.”
"I think Mr. Dore Gold should be the last one to talk about having previous beliefs and positions here,” the prince said.
Prince Turki led Saudi intelligence for more than 20 years and served as ambassador to the U.S. and United Kingdom. Though he now holds no official position, his stance is seen as closely mirroring that of King Salman. However, the king's assertive son, the 35-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is seen having a greater willingness to quietly engage with Israel to counter common rival, Iran, and boost foreign investment in the kingdom.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, also on stage for the tense exchanges, sought to smooth over the differences in his remarks. Still, he too stressed the importance of a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on a two-state solution as envisaged by the Arab Peace Initiative.
“The path of peace is not an easy ride. There will be a lot of obstacles along the way,” he said. “There will be ups and downs. But the bedrock of that path, the path of peace, is the Israeli-Palestinian issue.”
In an apparent reference to Iran, al-Zayani added that a resolution to the conflict would also remove the pretext to justify some of the threats made to regional security.