The pros and cons of forging peace

A clandestine business relationship persists, despite the abiding boycott.

saudi arabia  224.88 (photo credit: AP)
saudi arabia 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
A peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia may seem far-fetched, but both parties have something to gain. Riyadh holds considerable political clout in the Middle East and has assumed a leading role in brokering Middle Eastern conflicts, recently playing mediator in conflicts such as the internal Palestinian fighting, the conflict between Sudan and Chad and the fighting in Somalia. Jerusalem is well aware of the kingdom's high standing in the region. A normalization of ties would mean Israel could subtly apply pressure where Saudi Arabia has influence, including on Hamas. Riyadh was the initiator of the Arab plan that was first proposed in 2002 and endorsed in 2007. The initiative offers Israel normalization with Arab states in exchange for Israel withdrawing from all the lands it captured in 1967. A significant benefit for the Saudis is that a peace agreement with Israel lends Riyadh more legitimacy in the eyes of the West, and especially its close ally, the United States. "One of the criticisms against Saudi Arabia is that they're not doing enough to advance the peace process," says Shmuel Bar, director of studies at the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Opening a channel of dialogue with Israel would send a positive message to Washington, Bar says. "The Pakistanis, for example, are contacting Israel in order to improve their status in the eyes of the Americans. This is applicable to many countries in the Middle East which are ostensibly talking with Israel, but in fact it's a means for them to communicate with the US." Iran is also a reason for Israel and Saudi Arabia to join forces, as they are both concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Most Saudis are Sunni Muslim, whereas Iran is a Shi'ite state. Like other Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia is not happy about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran in its neighborhood, and this puts Riyadh and Jerusalem on the same page. The Saudis say the main obstacle to peace is Israel's actions and policies. But there are also internal conflicts at play. While the senior leadership is seen to be pragmatic and is willing to speak with Israelis discreetly, there are also fundamental Islamist currents in Saudi Arabia, which would be adamantly opposed to any ties with the Jewish state. Saudi Arabia has not followed the path of other Gulf countries, which allow some expressions of normalization with Israel, without establishing full diplomatic relations. "If Saudi Arabia recognizes Israel or establishes informal relations, this will be manifested in many other Arab states such as Gulf countries," says Prof. Eitan Gilboa, a senior research associate at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) at Bar-Ilan University. "The assumption is that Saudi Arabia has a lot of influence in the Gulf and elsewhere."