Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
(photo credit: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Imagine an Israeli taking a direct flight on El Al airlines to Riyadh, or the House of Saud establishing an embassy in Jerusalem. Previously unthinkable, rumors abound of a desire by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) to normalize ties between the two countries.
Saudi Arabia currently does not have official diplomatic relations with Israel and abides by an Arab League boycott on trade with the Jewish state.
Now, after years of animosity, Israel’s relationship with the Saudis appears to be warming, with the countries allied in the struggle against a common enemy, Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia have also reportedly been holding talks to establish economic ties. And in September, MBS was reported to have made a secret visit to Israel. According to several Israeli sources, the prince’s two-day trip was geared towards strengthening the growing partnership between Riyadh and Jerusalem.
Signs of rapprochement In a first-ever interview with the Saudi Elaph
newspaper published last week, Israel’s IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot said that Israel and Saudi Arabia share a common interest in thwarting Iran’s regional ambitions. He asserted that Israel is “ready to exchange experiences with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries [as well as] intelligence information to confront Iran.” In other significant comments, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz this week admitted to having discreet contacts with the kingdom. “We have ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries, and usually [we are] the party that is not ashamed. It’s the other side that is interested in keeping the ties quiet.”
In response, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir denied the assertion, telling Egypt’s CBC television that “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 [ties] between Israel and Arab states.”
There are a number of reasons Riyadh and Jerusalem may be cozying up, outside of the desire to stop Iran’s expansionism. Both countries agree, for example, that the “Arab Spring” revolutions were destabilizing and unleashed dangerous forces. They likewise believe that a reduction in American influence in the Middle East left a power vacuum that risks being filled by enemies. Other overlapping policies include the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, as well as opposition to Qatari meddling in the region.
Dr. Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the London-based Chatham House, told The Media Line that “it is unlikely MBS would have visited Israel himself, but the rumors do indicate a wider convergence of interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia, especially regarding Iran and Hezbollah. If there is one leader who would be able to take more open steps toward Israel, it would be him.”
“At the same time,” she clarified, “it remains difficult for Gulf leaders when you have an Israeli prime minister who isn’t seen as being open to making peace [with the Palestinians]. If there will be an agreement there could be a wider shift toward regional change.”
Public meetings between Israelis and Saudis have, in fact, taken place in the past. Last year, Yaakov Amidror, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, met with former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Feisal at a forum in Washington. Al-Feisal also recently shared a stage at a New York synagogue with Israeli Efraim Halevy, an ex-Mossad spy chief, to discuss Iran.
Dr. Anwar Eshki, a retired Saudi general and founder of The Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies, who is considered close to King Salman and MBS, publicly shook hands in 2015 at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations with Dore Gold, previously a top adviser to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Notably, Eshki led a delegation of academics and businessmen on a rare open visit to Israel in July 2016 and is on record as saying that Riyadh would establish an embassy in Israel if the Jewish state accepted the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
Speaking to The Media Line from his office in Jeddah, Eshki reiterated that “Saudi Arabia will not have any relations with Israel before the Palestinian problem is solved on the basis of the [Saudi] Arab Initiative. The Crown Prince has enough courage,” he continued, “[but] his political calculus does not allow him to establish relations with Israel while the Palestinian wound is bleeding.”
It is thus still too early to tell how close the Saudi-Israeli relationship will become, but until there is movement on the Palestinian front it is unlikely that Israelis and Saudis will be able to break bread together in either Jerusalem or Riyadh.