Saudi tactics

Israel should work with the Saudis to augment its diplomatic clout and advance an even larger transformation of the region.

SAUDI CROWN Prince Mohammad bin Salman looks on as he meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Riyadh last week (photo credit: REUTERS)
SAUDI CROWN Prince Mohammad bin Salman looks on as he meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Riyadh last week
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia’s leaders have never recognized Israel. In the wake of the collective Arab defeat at the hands of Israel in the Six Day War, the Saudis along with the other members of the Arab League issued the infamous “Three No’s” as part of the Khartoum Resolution: “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.”
Even the 2002 Saudi initiative, drafted by then-Crown Prince Abdullah, which ended absolute Arab intransigence, nevertheless made normalization of relations contingent upon a complete Israeli withdrawal from “occupied Arab territories, including the Syrian Golan Heights,” a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem, and the establishment of a “independent and sovereign” Palestinian in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with east Jerusalem as its capital.
In this context of rejectionism it was refreshing for a Saudi leader to seemingly break with tradition. In an interview with The Atlantic ’s editor Jeffrey Goldberg, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman – known colloquially as MBS – appeared to affirm Israel’s fundamental right to exist.
Goldberg asked the prince, “Do you believe the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland?”
Muhammad replied, “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.”
Was this a full-throated affirmation of political Zionism? By no means. But it does seem to point to a willingness on the part of the Saudis to allow the shared Saudi-Israeli interest in curbing Iranian influence in the region to be felt in public statements and gestures. Taken together with additional developments, MBS’s statements to Goldberg seem to mark a new, more pragmatic, era in Israeli-Saudi relations.
Last month, Riyadh began allowing Air India to fly over Saudi airspace to and from Israel, shortening flight time by two hours.
At the beginning of March, top Israeli and Saudi Arabian officials reportedly held a series of secret meetings in Cairo, ahead of US President Donald Trump’s expected unveiling of his long-awaited Middle East peace plan. And the Saudis are said to be pressuring Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to accept the terms of the Trump peace initiative.
In November, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot offered to share Israeli intelligence about Iran with Saudi Arabia, in a rare interview with Elaph, an online Saudi newspaper published in London.
And in another interview with Elaph, Transportation Minister Israel Katz even talked of someday building a railroad that would connect Israel to Saudi Arabia via Jordan.
All of these developments and others are positive, but should be viewed within a larger context. As we have argued in the past, Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have shared values. With all of MBS’s touting of anti-corruption and pro-women reforms, the 32-year-old leader’s country leaves no room for dissent, jails human rights activists, oppresses women and religious minorities, and remains corrupt.
MBS’s position as Saudi Arabia’s leader is by no means secure. The kingdom is torn by ideologically opposed groups and the prince made many enemies during his rise to power. If he is perceived as overly pro-Israel this can be used against him in the internal struggle for ascendancy.
Still, on a tactical level, Israel and Saudi Arabia have shared enemies. Both countries view Iran as a major threat and the Saudis recognize that Israel, far from a destabilizing element in the Middle East, can be an important ally in the campaign to contain the Islamic Republic and thwart its attempts to expand its influence and obtain nuclear weapons.
Both Israel and the Saudis view Hamas and other Muslim Brotherhood-inspired jihadist movements as a destructive force in the region.
Israel should take advantage of this tactical alliance with the Saudis to augment its diplomatic clout on issues such as the Iran nuclear deal and the US’s policy vis-a-vis Syria. At the same time, Israel should work with the Saudis to advance an even larger transformation of the region, for which MBS seems like a viable partner.