A serious overview of the Saudi media, as recently done by some MEMRI reports, shows a considerable improvement in the Saudi media’s treatment of Israel. These voices are important since they represent senior Saudi journalists and civil society activists.
Even more important is the fact that the op-eds express explicit recognition of Israel and its achievements. They are not devoid of criticism of the Netanyahu government’s policy vis-àvis the Palestinians, yet their concerns and antagonism toward Iran and the Shi’a are far greater than the media’s disapproval of Israel. Many Saudis believe Iran poses a greater threat than Israel, not only because of Iran’s geographical proximity, but also because the fear of Shi’ization is greater than of Judaization.
It is clear that this pattern is not coincidental but prescribed from above. Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), himself confirmed in an interview to the Atlantic in April 2018, that the Israelis (as well as the Palestinians) “have the right to their own land.” As antiSemitic statements by Saudi rulers in the past were not rare (in particular, statements by the founder of the Kingdom Ibn Sa’ud and King Faisal), the change reflected in MBS’s rhetoric is significant and, in fact, can be traced to the reign of King Fahd and Abdallah.
Although the Saudi media is not free of anti-Israel and even occasionally anti-Semitic voices, it is impossible to ignore this change in Saudi discourse. Its importance derives from several factors: (1) Saudi Arabia plays a special role in the Muslim and Arab worlds as a result of its control of the Holy Places in Mecca and Medina (in fact, the king is called the Custodian of the Two Holy Places), and more than two million people perform the Hajj every year; (2) As an oil-rich country, Saudi Arabia has financial leverage over its beneficiaries that can be used in the diplomatic field when necessary; and (3) Saudi Arabia is considered a “neutral” player in the Israeli-Arab conflict by virtue of the fact that Saudi Arabia has no treaty with Israel (in contrast to Egypt and Jordan).
The most significant element in the Saudi change of rhetoric is that it potentially could change Saudi society’s image of Israel and the Jews and build a more congenial climate for peace – if and when it is achieved. At least one notable case study may prove this point: Egypt. In the pre-1973 period, certain Egyptian intellectuals began talking about the need to recognize Israel and sign a peace treaty with it, for the sake of Egyptian interests.
In the post-1973 period, these voices were given a free rein from above to disseminate their views and they undoubtedly played a role in Sadat’s decision to visit Jerusalem in 1977. The conclusion is that voices of peace sometimes precede and may foreshadow the actual peace.
Saudi Arabia does not need peace with Israel. Israel and Saudi do not share a border and there is no state of war between the two countries. In fact, the two have never fought each other. The Saudis are, however, concerned by regional instability – caused by deterioration on the Israeli-Palestinian or the Iranian fronts – and its impact on oil prices. This is partially the reason why the Saudis have already initiated two peace plans – the Fahd and Abdallah initiatives (1981 and 2002 respectively), which turned into Arab peace plans. Israel unequivocally rejected these initiatives, at least in part due to its negative image of the Saudis.
The changing climate in Saudi Arabia poses yet another opportunity to Israeli decision makers. In Saudi Arabia, they might find a partner who is most willing to cooperate against Iran and also willing to cooperate in reaching a deal with the Palestinians. The ultimate deal for Israel, to use a worn-out phrase, is not between Israel and the Palestinians – important as is – but with the greater parts of the Islamic and Arab worlds, to which Saudi Arabia might pave the way. There are no free lunches, but that is exactly what the Netanyahu government is trying to do with the Saudis, when he is trying to promote cooperation without giving anything in return in the Palestinian track. A move from the hidden to the public domain would necessitate a tangible reward to the Palestinians, but this is not likely to happen, unfortunately.
Prof. Elie Podeh is a Board Member at the Mitvim Institute. He teaches at the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.