Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon speaks at the Munich Security Conference
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon speaks at the Munich Security Conference Reuters

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon was taken to task by former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal at the Munich Security Conference in Germany on Sunday, Haaretz reported.

The verbal confrontation between the two broke out after Ya'alon asserted that Israel was carrying out secret contacts with Arab countries in the Persian Gulf. The Saudi prince replied by saying that handshakes with Israelis have never helped the Palestinians, according to the newspaper.

In the course of Ya'alon's speech, the defense minister noted channels of communication that Israelis have with neighboring Sunni Arab countries.

"Not only Jordan and Egypt," he was quoted by Haaretz as having said. "I speak about the Gulf states and North African states too. Unfortunately they are not here to listen. For them, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood are the enemy…. Iran is the bad guy for us and for the Sunni regimes. They are not shaking hands [with Israelis] in public, but we meet in closed rooms."

After Ya’alon concluded his remarks, Saudi Prince Faisal raised his hand and asked for permission to speak, saying handshakes with Israelis have not helped the Palestinians much.

The Saudi prince also said that Ya'alon was correct with regard to his comments regarding the animosity between the Sunni countries on one hand and Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other, but also stressed that by the same measure the Sunni Arab countries are furious with Israel over the “occupation” and its treatment of the Palestinians.

"Why should the Arabs feel friendship to you when you do that [to the Palestinians]?" he asked, according to Haaretz.

Ya'alon rejected the Saudi prince's remarks, saying there was no connection between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and current problems elsewhere in the Middle East.

"There is a conflict with the Palestinians – but what is the linkage between this and the Iranian revolution? ISIS has a connection to the conflict? The civil war in Syria or the uprising in Tunisia? The situation in Yemen or Iraq? There is no connection."

Ya’alon also said Israel is not ignoring the dispute with the Palestinians, and accused Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Mahmoud Abbas of responsibility for the absence of progress on the diplomatic front.

The Palestinians, he added, are refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and prefer to speak about territory since that is an issue on which they would only receive and would not need to make concessions of any kind.

Haaretz further noted that despite the disagreement between the Saudi prince and Ya'alon, the two shook hands in front of cameras after the defense minister stepped down.

The comments follow reports in recent years of cooperation between Israel and some Arab countries, allegedly over their common concern about the Iranian nuclear threat.

Most of these reports have come out of Iran, which claimed that Israel and Saudi Arabia had teamed up to launch a virus against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. 

Another Iranian report claimed that the head of the Saudi intelligence service had met with several senior Israeli security officials, including the head of the Israeli Mossad, in Geneva. Both of those reports came out in 2013 and were never confirmed by either side.

Also in 2013, the same Prince Turki al-Faisal was observed speaking with then-MK Meir Sheetrit during a conference in Monaco.

Sheetrit reportedly invited the Saudi prince to address the Knesset, to which the prince replied that this would not be beneficial as long as Israel did not accept the Arab peace initiative, which calls for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders and acceptance of the "right of return" for millions of descendants of Arabs who fled pre-state Israel, effectively bringing an end to the Jewish state. In return, 22 Arab countries will normalize ties with Israel.