Israel and Saudi Arabia’s will-they-won’t-they whiplash

Like beloved sitcom characters, one week they seem to be getting closer and the next something pulls them apart.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman
For four months, since the announcement of the Abraham Accords, Israel and Saudi Arabia have been acting out that common television trope: the will-they-won’t-they.
Like beloved sitcom characters, one week they seem to be getting closer and the next something – at times a stupid miscommunication – pulls them apart. But in this case, of course, the consequences are much more serious than Ross thinking he was “on a break” with Rachel on Friends.
The latest episode in the Israel-Saudi drama played out on Sunday at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Manama Dialogue in Bahrain’s capital. The main players were Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal, the kingdom’s former intelligence chief and ambassador to the US and UK, while Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani played host.
The fact that Ashkenazi was participating in a conference in Manama – even if by video link – was noteworthy; the fact that he was on the same panel as a Saudi prince even more so. Because Prince Turki was willing to sit on a panel with him, and the topic was “new security partnerships in the Middle East,” Ashkenazi and his staff were lulled into a sense of security that turned out to be false.
The prince accused Israel of being the last “Western colonizer” in the Middle East, of having apartheid policies, of not truly being a democracy and of profligately killing people and demolishing homes.
These claims are absurd coming from an official in a country where human rights are so backward that permitting women to drive a few years ago was applauded as a great step forward.
Plus, Prince Turki’s false accusations are a dime a dozen for any experienced Israeli diplomat or advocate, but, of course, Ashkenazi only dove into the world of diplomacy seven months ago, and he was expecting the conference to be a continuation of the love-fests between Israel and its new partners in the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
And while Prince Turki himself has been openly critical of warming ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia before, Ashkenazi, after expressing his “regret” at the royal’s statements, pointed out that Israeli ties with the UAE and Bahrain would not have happened without Saudi approval.
It’s since those ties were announced, in mid-August, that the Saudis have gone back and forth, coming closer to Israel and stepping away.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have a history of hostility going back to Saudi troops fighting on the Arab side in Israel’s War of Independence and the Yom Kippur War. In 2002, Saudi King Abdullah proposed the Arab Peace Plan that would require Israel to withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines for a two-state solution and normalization with the Arab world.
But relations have been gradually warming, especially over the past decade. Israel views Saudi Arabia as a source of stability in a Middle East still healing from the wounds of the Arab Spring, and the countries see each other as having shared interests in opposing Iran.
This summer, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) gave tacit approval to the Abraham Accords, but some reports say that his father, Saudi King Salman, was not informed in advance.
This is, to some extent, a reflection of a divide in the Saudi Royal Court when it comes to Israel that breaks down mostly on generational lines: MBS sees relations with Israel as a net positive for the kingdom, while the king feels strongly committed to the traditional Arab stance toward the Palestinians.
And so, when the UAE announced ties with Israel, the Saudis’ public response was that they still back the Arab Peace Plan.
Then, about two weeks later, Saudi Arabia let the El Al flight with the first Israeli delegation to the UAE onboard fly through its airspace, and said that any flights with the UAE can fly over their country.
In October, another Saudi former intelligence chief and ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, slammed the Palestinian leadership on a multi-part special on the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV station, calling them “failures” and saying they “always bet on the losing side.”
As this continued, US President Donald Trump and others kept saying peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia was on the way. But the Saudis made sure to constantly clarify their commitment to a two-state solution before normalization.
In the past two weeks, the developments have moved so fast they could induce whiplash.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MBS met in Neom, a hi-tech Saudi city on the Red Sea, two weeks ago.
There was no official statement from the meeting, but within a day, every major news outlet in Israel knew of it and soon after, international outlets confirmed it with anonymous Saudi officials.
It was, of course, momentous that two such senior figures from these two countries met. They discussed normalization – which is still a no-go – and Iran, where the countries are united in opposing its nuclear ambitions and malign actions in the region, such as backing proxies like the Houthis in Yemen, that attack Saudi Arabia, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, that attacks Israel.
This was a rare show of unity from Riyadh and Jerusalem, and the timing seemed to be carefully selected to send a message to US President-elect Joe Biden that they would oppose moves that would give an international imprimatur to Iran to eventually develop a nuclear weapon.
But then, the Saudi Foreign Ministry semi-denied the meeting took place. That is, the denial said there were no Israeli officials present when MBS met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – and not that MBS had met with Netanyahu at all.
MBS was, reportedly, not happy that word of the meeting got out, and on Friday, Yediot Aharonot reported that he canceled a meeting with Mossad chief Yossi Cohen to show that dissatisfaction.
And now there’s Prince Turki’s sharp message. The prince said he was only relaying his personal opinion – but when asked about Prince Bandar, said that was the other prince’s personal opinion as well. Yet these are all members of the royal family who have an inside look at what is happening at the top.
In late October, The Jerusalem Post reported that Cohen had said in closed conversations that if Biden wins the US presidential election, the Saudis will be more cautious in considering normalization. Biden is likely to be more in line with the idea that Saudi ties with Israel should be connected to progress on peace with the Palestinians, for example. The Saudis would want to leverage normalization with Israel to their greatest political benefit, especially since Biden has made clear he is going to be much tougher on them than Trump has been.
That seems to be exactly what has unfolded in the ensuing weeks, between MBS being enthusiastic while King Salman is less so. Because Riyadh understandably wants maximum gains from the dramatic and historic step of normalization with Jerusalem, any move toward Israel is more like two steps forward and one step back.
What Israel can understand from the Saudis fostering the continued will-they-won’t-they drama is that they are not as ready as some in Israel had hoped to establish open ties between the countries. Israel needs to continue to tread carefully to keep that progress moving in the direction of “they will.”