Saudi foreign minister denies country maintains ties with Israel

Is it possible Israel is not as close to the Saudis as it would like to be?

November 22, 2017 01:48
4 minute read.
Saudi foreign minister denies country maintains ties with Israel

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud poses for a photo with National Guard Minister Khaled bin Ayyaf and Economy Minister Mohammed al-Tuwaijri during a swearing-in ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 6, 2017. . (photo credit: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir has denied there are relations between Riyadh and Jerusalem, in an apparent response to Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz making the first public disclosure of such ties.

Jubeir told Egypt’s CBC television station on Monday: “There are no relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. There is the Arab peace initiative, which shows the road map to reach peace and establish normal relations between Israel and Arab states.”

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The initiative calls for a complete withdrawal from the territories Israel captured in 1967 in exchange for full diplomatic ties with Arab and Muslim states.

Jubeir’s statement appeared to show there was still some Saudi caution about acknowledging the ties, impelled by a common interest in confronting Iranian influence in the region.

But that reticence could be changing.

Israeli observers say it was very significant that a Saudi-owned website, Elaph, last week published an interview with IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.

In the interview, Eisenkot said: “We are ready to exchange experiences with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries and exchange intelligence information to confront Iran. There are many shared interests between us and Saudi Arabia.”

MK Anat Berko (Likud), a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told The Jerusalem Post that “we are seeing a picture in which there is closening between Israel and Saudi Arabia because of very clear and visible shared interests.”

As part of this, Berko believes the Saudis have reached the point at which they are ready to bring the relationship out into the open.

“It’s a process – they are coming out of the closet,” she said.

“The very fact that they approved a public interview with the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces is proof of this. It’s a statement in front of the whole world that there is a connection. It shows they have crossed the Rubicon. They understand the publication has great value in putting things on the table and they are telling their enemies ‘we will cooperate even with Israel against you,’” Berko said. “It doesn’t change them into friends of ours, but there are at times partnerships for war against a common enemy, an enemy that threatens us and them.”

Berko added: “From the moment the chief of staff spoke in a public interview, the relations are no longer concealed.”

She added that she did not want to set a timetable, “but I definitely expect there will be visits by diplomats on both sides.

There is no problem with that.”

Brandon Friedman, a specialist on Saudi Arabia at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center, was more circumspect. In his view, publication of the interview was a kind of trial balloon to gauge reaction in the Arab world and inside Saudi Arabia to going public with the relationship.

“They want to assess how much room to maneuver they have with their own people and in the Arab world, to know what’s the backlash,” Friedman told the Post. “It’s now a question whether they want to keep [ties] secret despite Jubeir’s comments.”

On Sunday, Steinitz gave the first official confirmation of long-rumored secret contacts when he told Army Radio that “ties are developing” with Riyadh and other Arab or Muslim states, but that Israel respected their desire to keep them under wraps.

Friedman said that what Steinitz conveyed was not surprising.

“People who watch Saudi Arabia here have always suspected there are tactical ties where the two sides have a shared interest in cooperating on security issues,” he said. “The question really is, what’s the meaning of the relationship in broader terms? That remains to be seen. It will ultimately be closely tied to some regional peace initiative on the Palestinian front.”

In order to appear legitimate to their own people, the Saudis will need to be seen as advancing a fair and just resolution of the Palestinian issue, Friedman added.

“If they can get Israeli cooperation on the Iran issue and be seen by their own people as moving forward on a fair and just resolution of the Palestinian issue, that’s a win-win situation for them,” he told the Post.

In the Knesset last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu highlighted Israel’s relations in the region.

“Everyone can see the great closening,” Netanyahu said. “We are shoulder to shoulder with the moderate states in the Arab world, whether it is against Iran or Islamic State. This closening is good for security and, in my view, good, ultimately, for peace.”

In the view of Alon Liel, a former director- general of the Foreign Ministry, there will be no diplomatic relations with the Saudis until a peace deal is reached with the Palestinians, although with US encouragement, economic and security relations could develop.

At the moment, however, he believes that Israel is exaggerating the degree of closeness with the Saudis. He said that playing up the ties “stresses that the Palestinians are at least partially isolated in the Middle East. It creates the impression that an important part of the Arab world accepts Israel with the occupation [continuing].”

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