Can an Israeli-Saudi Détente Work?

    Yoel Guzansky, Khader Sawaed, Ari Heistein

    Security, Middle East

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem

    Israel should not overestimate the power and influence of Saudi Arabia, as well as its potential contribution to mounting a regional response to Iranian aggression.

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not shy about referring to the supposedly secretive ties he is cultivating with Arab states with which Israel lacks formal relations. “Our productive cooperation with Arab states is secret cooperation. . . . I believe that [these ties] will bear fruit and broaden the circle of peace . . . In the end it will happen, because it happens all the time beneath the surface,” Netanyahu said at a memorial service for the late prime minister David Ben-Gurion in November of 2017. However, there are limitations on the public displays of those relations, like the ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh, for example. In turn, that places some limitations on the relations themselves, and affects Israel’s regional strategy vis-à-vis Iran. This subject is particularly relevant and significant because the United States is reportedly planning to unveil a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, coupled with a comprehensive regional strategy for coping with the dangers posed by the Iranian-led axis.

    According to many press reports on Israeli-Saudi cooperation, the two countries’ intelligence-security relationship, while not new, is now reaching unprecedented heights. What is more surprising than the covert relations is the clear and identifiable trend of Saudi Arabia warming up to Israel in the public arena. It is reflected in the permission it grants to “unofficial officials,” including former senior officials and members of the royal family, to meet publicly with Israelis.

    It is also apparent from the trend of the tightly controlled Saudi press portraying Israel in a more positive light. Recently, Israeli officials have been granted access to Saudi media outlets, such as when Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot was interviewed by the newspaper Elaph, and he publicly expressed willingness to share intelligence with Arab partners seeking to contain Iran. These steps are probably motivated in part by Riyadh’s desire to get the Saudi public used to the possibility of more public relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, after years of anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic materials spouted by educational, religious and political authorities.

    The question that needs asking, then, is: in light of similar defense priorities in Jerusalem and Riyadh regarding the Iranian threat, is the latter willing to concede on some of its demands regarding the Palestinians?

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