Israeli-Saudi interplay: When a molehill is just a molehill – analysis

Starved for acceptance, any crumb thrown in Israel’s direction from one of the Gulf States is transformed in Israel – and also by many Jews abroad – into a full-course meal.

A SAUDI ARABIAN flag. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A SAUDI ARABIAN flag.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One Tel Aviv University press release on Monday had a breathless air to it: “Unprecedented,” read the headline. “A Senior Saudi Researcher Contributed an Article to an Israeli Academic Journal.”
“The latest issue of ‘Kesher,’ an academic journal published by the Shalom Rosenfeld Institute for Research of Jewish Media and Communication at Tel Aviv University, opens with a unique paper, which is unprecedented in an academic journal,” read the release.
“In his first article in Hebrew, Prof. Mohammed Ibrahim Alghbban, head of NELC and Hebrew Studies at the Department of Modern Languages and Translation, at King Saud University in Riyadh, claims that the prophet Muhammad had good relations with Jews and only clashed with them on political grounds, not on religious ones. The article is called ‘Contribution to Prophet Muhammad’s Image Improvement in the Eyes of the Israeli Public: Muhammad’s Alliances and Mail Exchanges with Jews from the Arabian Peninsula.’ The paper was published among increasing calls in Saudi Arabia and the Arab League to use inter-religious understanding for cooperation with Jews and Israel to achieve peace.”
Those who wrote the headline to that release know their Israeli audience well, and were obviously expecting a “Wow!” reaction, because in the past, that has generally been the response whenever there has been any normal interchange between Israel and the Persian Gulf countries.
Ex-Saudi general Anwar Eshki meets publicly in Washington with Dore Gold in 2015 just days before Gold is to become the director general of the Foreign Ministry: Wow!
Saudi Arabia allows Air India flights bound for Israel to fly over its  airspace in 2018: Wow!
A Saudi blogger visits Israel in 2019 and tweets about the trip: Wow!
Each of these steps are touted as unprecedented and grasped at by Israelis as a sign that we are on the way toward normal relations with the Saudis and the ability to soon eat shwarma in Riyadh.
And it is not only from Saudi Arabia. Starved for acceptance, any crumb thrown in Israel’s direction from one of the Gulf States is transformed in Israel – and also by many Jews abroad – into a full-course meal. This has been true for years, dating back to the multilateral track of the Madrid process that began in 1992 and petered out a couple years later.
And while it is true that over the last three or four years an increasing number of these crumbs have been thrown in Israel’s direction, the Jewish state is far from sitting down with the Persian Gulf countries and dining together at a sumptuous feast in an open and normal fashion.
We are just not there, and as the Arab states have repeatedly reminded us, we are not going to get there until an agreement is reached with the Palestinians.
And since we are nowhere near reaching an agreement with the Palestinians, largely because Israel is not willing to give in to all the Palestinian demands, normalization with the Arab states is not going to happen any time soon.
This does not mean that there will not be contacts, that there will be no business, security and intelligence links. There will be, but these will not lead to a dramatic breakthrough until there is a peace deal with the Palestinians. And if for the foreseeable future such a peace deal seems unattainable, then Israel will just have to live with informal, under-the-table, under-the-radar relations with those Arab states with whom it does not have full relations.
Which is not the end of the world.
For years the advocates of a two-state solution have argued that until a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines comes into being, with east Jerusalem as its capital, Israel will be isolated in the region.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proven that assumption false. The ball has not been moved an inch forward with the Palestinians in the 11 years Netanyahu has been in office, but that has not prevented all the under-the-radar activity with the Arab countries from taking place. What the lack of progress has prevented is formalizing all that activity by bringing it out in the open. Netanyahu had hoped that even without a peace agreement with the Palestinians, he could normalize ties with the Arab world. He has long been an advocate of the outward-in approach to peacemaking: that idea that peace with the Persian Gulf states would then make it easier to reach peace with the Palestinians, largely because they could then nudge the Palestinians to be more compromising and realistic in their demands.
But that, too, has proven to be an illusion.
And so what we are left with is a place in the middle. No peace with the Palestinians, no formal relations with the Arab world – with the exception of Jordan and Egypt – yet a plethora of activity under the table. In the Mideast, under the table is often a very crowded place.
And what that all means is that while it is nice that a Saudi academic who teaches Hebrew at a Saudi university writes in Hebrew in an Israeli university journal, it is not a major event. Nor should it be made into one.
The title of the article itself says its goal is to contribute to improving the image of Muhammad in the eyes of the Israeli public. So where else should the professor submit such a paper? A journal at Kansas State University? At Yale?
No, Tel Aviv University is the natural platform.
Last month Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to Washington, wrote an op-ed piece in Yediot Ahronot aimed at the Israeli public, warning against annexation. This, too, was hailed as a major event. But there, too, Yediot Ahronot seemed the natural venue. If someone wants to reach the Israeli public, they write on a platform that will be read by the Israeli public.
Israelis should see these interchanges for what they are: natural interactions showing that the destinies of Israel and the other countries in the region are intertwined, that their interests sometimes overlap, and that from time to time there will be interplay.
It is not a breakthrough, it is not a sign that something much bigger is lurking just around the corner. It is what it is: A Saudi Hebrew teacher wanting to convince the Israelis that their conception of Muhammad’s attitudes toward Jews is misinformed.  Nothing more, nothing less. There is no mountain in this molehill.