Israel and Saudi Arabia: From Foes to Potential Friends

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The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, is fed up with the Palestinian leadership. “Over the past 40 years, the Palestinian leadership has repeatedly missed opportunities and rejected all proposals”, he said during a meeting with several Jewish leaders in late March. “It is time for the Palestinians to accept the proposals […] or to remain silent and stop complaining”.

This was not the first time that Saudi officials had harshly criticized the Palestinian leadership for consistently missing historic opportunities to resolve the conflict, but until now they have not done it publicly. The contacts between Riyadh and Jerusalem are perceived by part of the Saudi public as a betrayal of the Palestinian interest, which plays into the hands of the regime’s opponents. Therefore, the royal family should prove that it is not abandoning the Palestinian struggle in favor of normalization with Israel.

The Palestinian issue has never been at the top of the Saudi agenda, but it has been and continues to be, a restraining factor in Saudi Arabia’s attitude towards Israel. Historically, there have been moments in which the interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia coincided, but they have never materialized into a dramatic change in the bilateral relations. The reason was the Saudi regime’s fear of harsh reactions on the part of the Arab world, which would undermine its public image and its religious status as the guardian of the holy sites of Islam.

However lately, as the Iranian threat increases, Israel has become a potential ally for Saudi Arabia. Not only do the two countries share the same view of the need to root out radical elements and stabilize the Middle East, but Israel is the only country in the world with the military intentions and capabilities required to fight common enemies. Over the years, Saudi Arabia has relied heavily on its strategic alliance with the United States, but in recent years the American administration’s willingness to intervene in the Middle East’s bloody conflicts has diminished, and Saudi Arabia has virtually remained without a tailwind to effectively curb Iran’s influence. In such circumstances, Israel has become a major player in changing the regional balance of power. Beyond its intelligence and strategic capabilities, Israel serves as an economic model for Saudi Arabia. As the Saudi economy is undergoing a revolution from being an oil-based economy to a productive and advanced economy, Israel’s knowledge and technology has become increasingly attractive.

The hidden potential in normalized Israeli-Saudi relations is enormous. On the strategic level, the bi-lateral relations are not symmetrical in view of Israel’s clear military superiority, but it does not diminish their importance. Saudi Arabia’s strategic position in the Arab world could help Israel fight Iran and strengthen the security cooperation with other Arab countries. Nevertheless, Israel’s fear of advanced arms deals between Saudi Arabia and the United States and the possibility of developing Saudi nuclear weapons in response to Iranian nuclear weapons, should not be dismissed. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia could take advantage of Israeli intelligence on Iran and its Middle Eastern affiliates, as well as its defense systems (such as Iron Dome) and its advanced capabilities against Cyber-attacks.

At the diplomatic level, Israeli-Saudi cooperation can help mitigate explosive incidents, such as riots on the Temple Mount. In addition, it will pave the way for the promotion of economic, energy and agricultural projects between Israel and the Arab countries, which presently hardly exist at present. Already, the royal family is exerting pressure to convince the Palestinian leadership to be more flexible with their demands from Israel. Unlike the past, Saudi Arabia has withdrawn from its demand for a just solution to the Palestinian issue and is now talking about a logical solution. Thus, for example, the Saudis no longer support the Palestinian demand for the right of return, rather they seek a solution that will be acceptable to Israel as well. In addition, it does not condition the normalization of its relations with Israel on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and is willing to settle for a breakthrough in negotiations. As far as Israel is concerned, if Israel makes gestures, such as freezing settlements or removing (even partially) the closure on Gaza, that signal to the Arab world that it is willing to negotiate, Saudi Arabia will possibly reward Israel with more gestures.

At the economic level, if the regime removes the economic barriers and allows Israeli merchandise and labor to integrate into the Saudi economy, it will make a huge contribution to the Israeli economy, especially if other Arab countries open their gates to Israeli produce.

Saudi Arabia and Israel are interested in normalizing their relations. This is indisputable. However, despite the mutual will, it is still a long and winding road towards that goal. At this point in time, there is a chance that Saudi Arabia may succeed in bringing the Palestinian leadership to the negotiating table, but it cannot force it to sign a document in which the Palestinians waive their historical demands on Israel. Israel, on its part, does not show willingness to meet the Saudi threshold requirements. With the current coalition, any Israeli gesture toward the Palestinians would be seen as deviating from the ideological positions of the government.

As things stand now, the Israeli and Palestinian leadership are unable to bridge the gap between their positions, despite the American and Arab pressure. Therefore, the chances of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia are unclear. While there has been a dramatic change in the Saudi discourse toward Israel lately, it is doubtful whether the conditions for the Saudi leadership to leap over the Palestinian hurdle are ripe for normalization with the Zionist enemy.

Israel must do its best not to miss the unique window of opportunity that has opened in its relations with Saudi Arabia. Opportunities are deceptive and transient in the Middle East, therefore the common interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia may fade if the current circumstances change. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the Israeli government is to restore its credibility in the eyes of the Saudi leadership. Normalization with Saudi Arabia will not be given for free. It has its price. The question is whether Israel is willing to pay it. The worst thing that the Israeli prime minister could do is to instill in the Saudis the feeling that he is ready to make concessions, and then to retract his statement. Saudi Arabia has been disappointed with the Israeli leadership in the past. It must not happen again.

Dr. Michal Yaari is an expert on Saudi Arabia from Tel Aviv University and the Open University and is a member of a task team at the Mitvim Institute. This article is based on a research about Israel-Saudi Arabia relations, which was written as part of a Mitvim Institute project on “Israel’s relations with the Arab countries: The unfulfilled potential”.

(originally published in Ynetnews)

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