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Israel and Saudi Arabia’s delicate courtship

A shared enemy, Iran, brings former foes Israel and Saudi Arabia closer together.

Saudi Arabia-Israel Saudi relations
Retired Saudi ​general, Anwar ​I​sh​q​i​ (left) ​and former Israeli ambassador Dore Gold​ shake hands ​at a Council on Foreign Relations event​ in June 2015. ​ Photo C​ouncil​ on F​oreign ​R​elations.

After American President Donald Trump made the first direct flight from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to Tel Aviv, Israel on 22 May 2017, following an Arab-Islamic-American summit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted, ‘I hope one day an Israeli prime minister will be able to fly from Tel Aviv to Riyadh.’

Conservative, oil-rich Saudi Arabia presents itself not just as the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, but also as the prime defender of Sunni Muslim interests, notably the Palestinian cause. Unlike secular Arab nations such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria, which framed the Arab-Israeli conflict in nationalist, anti-occupation terms, the Saudis see it as a religious clash between Islam and Judaism. A thaw in relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia would thus mark a major shift in the 70-year-old conflict.

Reports on growing cooperation behind the scenes increased as both countries strongly came out against the nuclear deal signed in 2015 between Iran, the United States, the European Union, Russia and China. Netanyahu disregarded warnings from the Obama administration and insisted on addressing the US Congress directly to ask them to vote down the deal.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, pressed Obama hard to order a military strike against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which is largely backed by Iran.

Obama backed off at the last moment from launching such a military strike and, two years later, signed the deal with Iran. Since then, several more or less public meetings have taken place between Saudi and Israeli officials, not just in Washington or European capitals but also in Jerusalem.

Saudi citizens are forbidden by law from holding meetings with Israelis. Israelis, in turn, are banned from entering Saudi Arabia, as are foreigners with an Israeli stamp or visa in their passports. However, there was nothing but silence when repeated meetings took place between Prince Turki al-Faisal, former director of Saudi intelligence and former ambassador to London and Washington, and Israeli officials in Washington.

Anwar Eshki, a former senior Saudi intelligence official, also encountered no problems upon returning home from a public trip to Jerusalem, during which he met Israeli officials and members of parliament. Eshki claimed that his original aim was to visit the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah. Yet even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas needs Israeli permission to go to Jerusalem, and it is highly unlikely that Eshki would have made the trip without the consent of the Saudi royal palace.

Meanwhile, after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi signed a controversial agreement with Saudi King Salman in April 2016 to hand over two strategic Red Sea islands, Riyadh confirmed that it will respect the terms of the peace deal reached between Egypt and Israel in 1979 that assures free shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba.

During his unprecedented visit to Jerusalem, Eshki also gave a rare interview to an Israeli newspaper. He told Yedioth Ahronoth that the two islands, Tiran and Sanafir, which under the agreement will be formally demarcated as being in Saudi waters, could serve as the launching pad to normalize relations between the two countries.

“Egypt recently returned two islands to Saudi Arabia … On Tiran Island, which stretches over 80 square kilometres, a free trade zone is being built exempt from taxes and duties. If Israel goes along with the diplomatic process and adopts the Arab peace plan, we shall invite Israel to present goods and sell what you have to offer on the island of Tiran. Such a move will have huge economic returns for you,” Eshki said.

He added that once Netanyahu accepted the 2002 Saudi-brokered peace plan, in which Arab leaders offered to recognize the State of Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from Arab lands captured since 1967, “Saudi Arabia will commence a procedure, the goal of which will be to encourage Arab countries to begin implementing normalization with Israel, which will reflect positively on your relationship with Egypt, Jordan and other countries.”

However, there are no indications that the Israeli premier plans to accept the peace plan anytime soon. On the contrary, Netanyahu has always insisted that warmer relations with Arab countries would be the first step towards reaching a settlement with the Palestinians.

Saudi officials have claimed that their close ties with the Trump administration have helped them put pressure on the Israeli government to end recent clashes over al-Aqsa mosque in occupied East Jerusalem. At least five Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers during protests against Netanyahu’s decision to install metal detectors at the entrance of the mosque. The decision to install the detectors was made after three Palestinians shot dead two Israeli policemen at the entrance to the compound a week earlier. However, both Jordan and Egypt also claimed they had helped defuse the crisis, using their connections with the Israeli government to have the detectors removed.

Meanwhile, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other respected media outlets have run extensive reports on the growing cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose conservative rulers do not seem concerned about a public backlash. This is despite the anti-Israeli rhetoric they have maintained for years. It seems that Shiite Iran and the Islamic State (ISIS) have now replaced Israel as their main enemies.

While measuring public opinion in the closed, authoritarian kingdom is an extremely difficult task, a 2015 opinion poll carried out by the Associated Press and the Israeli Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya found that 53 per cent of Saudis consider Iran as their main adversary and 22 per cent said it is ISIS. Only 18 per cent said Israel.

Western media reports have quoted Saudi policymakers as saying that containing Iran was a greater priority than creating a viable Palestinian state. Thus, Saudi Arabia has developed clandestine business deals with Israeli companies in recent years, especially in security and intelligence. To circumvent the official trade boycott, Israeli goods have been shipped to Saudi Arabia under the purview of foreign companies. Israeli media reports have also claimed that the Israel Defense Forces has offered Saudi Arabia Iron Dome military technology to defend Saudi territory from Yemeni rockets.

Such ties are often referenced only obliquely by Israeli government ministers as ‘shared interests’ against the common Iranian threat. Yet reports have surfaced about clandestine meetings between Israeli intelligence chiefs and their Gulf counterparts. Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, allegedly travelled to Saudi Arabia in 2010 for secret talks about Iran’s nuclear programme.

Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who is backed by Iran, strongly attacked Saudi Arabia for normalizing relations with Israel. “Saudi Arabia has taken advantage of the ailing Arab situation, only to build relations with Israel,” Nasrallah said. “The price will be at the account of the Palestinians.” A senior Saudi official told the Wall Street Journal in May 2017, “We no longer see Israel as an enemy, but a potential opportunity.”

While Saudi officials are unlikely to speak on the record about their closer relations with Israel, Israeli officials have been more forthcoming. “Much more is going on now than any time in the past,” Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Wall Street Journal.

Steinitz, who last year made a secret visit to the UAE capital Abu Dhabi to discuss regional issues, said Israeli technology, including for surveillance, is being shared with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. “Israel has developed cutting-edge technology that allows us to detect terrorist plots in advance,” he said. “This enables us to help moderate Arab governments protect themselves.”

Chagai Tzuriel, director general of Israel’s Intelligence Ministry, added that a lot of progress is being made out of the public eye. “There’s a gap between what’s on the table and what’s under the table,” he said. “Everyone understands that when you look at the long run, the deeper relationships are going to be in the civilian area: energy, water, agriculture, medicine, transportation.”