In Saudi Arabia, signs of an effort to break the Israel taboo

Softer media reporting "is a sign there is less enmity," says one Israeli official.

Netanyahu and Saudi King Salman (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Saudi King Salman
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi state-run media appears to be softening its reporting on Israel, running unprecedented columns floating the prospect of direct relations, quoting Israeli officials and filling its newsholes with fewer negative stories on Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians.
The public shift – from outlets such as al-Arabiya and Riyadh newspaper, among other local or state-owned outlets – reflects secret, undert he-table contact between the Arab kingdom and the Jewish state that has been a work in progress for years.
But media movement marks a new phase in t hat diplomatic process, according to some experts on the kingdom, who see signs of a monarchy effort to prepare Saudi society for debate that had previously been off limits.
“The key here is that everybody understands this is not going to turn around overnight, and its probably not going to convince a lot of people. But that’s not really the point,” said David Pollock, an expert on the region at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The point is to establish this as a debatable proposition, and to break the taboo of even debating about it – about the prospect of normalizing relations.”
“Once you’ve done that, you’ve made it legitimate,” Pollock added. “There are suddenly two sides.”
One column called for Saudis to “leave behind” their “hatred of Jews,” and another said that talks between the two nations should be direct, without intermediaries, based on Saudi national interests.
Those national interests appear to align with Israel’s, primarily on the issue of Iran, which has dominated the Saudi news cycle in recent months– from Islamic Republic activities in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
Saudi conservative Islamists view Iran, the Shi’ite and Hezbollah as “much worse than the Jews,” Pollock commented. “So that kind of takes the edge off – and actually pushes them in the same direction.”
An official in the Foreign Ministry said there have been some positive signals from Riyadh – such as an interview that ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer gave recently to the Saudi media, and one that Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold had last year with a Saudi website – but that there is no sense this is part of an organized campaign to prepare the ground for better ties.
“These are positive signs, but I would not say they are game changers,” the official said. “Good things are happening.
But rather than seeing this as trying to prepare the ground for something, I’d say it is a sign that there is less enmity.”
A source in the Prime Minister’s Office concurred. He acknowledged a few articles of late from “some pretty big journalists” against hating Jews, but said that he knows nothing about it coming from the top as part of an organized campaign.
Quiet talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia began leaking into public view in June, when a handshake between Gold and former Saudi government adviser Anwar Eshki raised eyebrows. Putting to rest any doubt that the handshake was an isolated affair, Eshki led a Saudi delegation to Jerusalem the following month that was publicly acknowledged.
Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud also shared a stage with Israel’s former military intelligence chief, Amos Yadlin, in 2014.
A similar effort is under way in Egypt, Pollock said.
“I gather from talking to some of the people who are directly involved with it that there are different camps – different schools of thought in these countries,” said Pollock. “There is definitely internal opposition, and it’s very delicate, and fragile. But in both countries, the government and the establishment media – and their spin-offs and allies – are pursuing a deliberate strategy to do this.” •