בנימין נתניהו, מוחמד בן סלמאן
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Photo: Reuters, AFP
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Saudi Arabia and Israel: A history of quietly warming ties

Analysis: Shared animosity towards Iran and modernization efforts by Crown Prince Mohammed have put the kingdom on track to formalize ties with Jerusalem, although until Palestinian issue is solved, such a deal is unlikely to happen

AFP |
Published: 11.24.20 , 23:37
Bombshell reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held secret talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - denied by Saudi Arabia - come after years of covert diplomacy between the two Mideast powers.
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  • The meeting reported by Israeli media would be the first reported trip by an Israeli premier to the kingdom and a major step towards the Jewish state's acceptance in the Arab world.
    5 צפייה בגלריה
    בנימין נתניהו, מוחמד בן סלמאן
    בנימין נתניהו, מוחמד בן סלמאן
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
    (Photo: Reuters, AFP)
    However, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan denied the discussions had taken place, saying in a tweet that "no such meeting occurred". Netanyahu's office was not immediately available to comment on the reports.
    Here are some key points on recent diplomacy between the two countries, and the implications of such a meeting.
    What led up to the visit?
    Several Gulf Arab states have for years been furtively building relations with Israel on the basis of shared animosity towards Iran, with the United States acting as cheerleader as its own relationship with Tehran deteriorated.
    That low-key diplomacy burst into the open in August when the United Arab Emirates announced it was normalizing relations with Israel.
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    L-R: Bahrain FM Abdullatif al-Zayani, PM Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Emirati FM Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House
    L-R: Bahrain FM Abdullatif al-Zayani, PM Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Emirati FM Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House
    L-R: Bahrain FM Abdullatif al-Zayani, PM Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Emirati FM Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House
    (Photo: AFP)
    A similar deal with Saudi Arabia would be the ultimate diplomatic prize for Israel. Riyadh said it would not follow its ally, but Bahrain soon signed up in a move seen as proceeding only with a nod from its giant neighbor.
    Saudi also allowed new direct flights from the Emirates to Israel to travel through its airspace, in another implicit sign of approval.
    What's changing in Saudi Arabia?
    The kingdom's official position is that a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a precondition for normalizing ties, a stance that carries great weight in the Arab world given its status as custodian of Islam's holy sites.
    It has been squeamish about going public with any rapprochement, for fear of a backlash including within the highly conservative nation.
    Nevertheless, relations have warmed in a shift spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed, the ambitious young de facto leader.
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    A delegation led by Mohammed al-Aissa, a former Saudi minister and the general secretary of the Muslim World League, visiting Auschwitz
    A delegation led by Mohammed al-Aissa, a former Saudi minister and the general secretary of the Muslim World League, visiting Auschwitz
    A delegation led by Mohammed al-Aissa, a former Saudi minister and the general secretary of the Muslim World League, visiting Auschwitz in early 2020
    (Photo: Twitter)
    In steps laying the groundwork for an eventual recognition, the country has pursued a bold outreach to Jewish figures, and state media outlets and even television dramas have emerged as cheerleaders.
    School textbooks, once well known for denigrating Jews and other non-Muslims as "swines" and "apes", are undergoing revision as part of the push to change public perceptions of a community that has long been vilified by the clerical establishment and media.
    In February, King Salman hosted a Jerusalem-based rabbi in Riyadh for the first time in modern history. Israeli media published a photograph of Rabbi David Rosen with the monarch, hailing it as a "revolutionary moment".
    What does the kingdom stand to gain?
    The Gulf oil monarchies and the Jewish state are all staunch U.S. allies who have common concerns over Iran. The move towards rapprochement comes as Tehran has bolstered its influence in several Arab countries.
    But there are also many financial advantages to linking up the wealthy Gulf states with the powerful Israeli economy.
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    נאום סעודיה 2
    נאום סעודיה 2
    NEOM, a planned cross-border city in the Tabuk Province of northwestern Saudi Arabia
    (Photo: NEOM official website)
    Saudi attempts to attract foreign investment to fund its ambitious Vision 2030 economic diversification plan appear to be pushing the kingdom closer to Israel.
    "The Saudis recognize the important role that Israel plays in the region," Marc Schneier, an American rabbi with close ties to the kingdom and the Gulf, told AFP in May.
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    The Grand Mosque complex in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca, Islam's holiest site
    The Grand Mosque complex in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca, Islam's holiest site
    The Grand Mosque complex in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca, Islam's holiest site, undergoing renovations and expansion
    (Photo: AFP)
    "Just a couple of years ago, Khalid bin Salman (a prince and deputy minister) told me that the kingdom knows that Israel is an integral part of their achieving their 2030 economic plan. That is a major statement and really shows the warming of the ties."
    Analysts also say that Saudi could be offering an olive branch to the incoming administration of Joe Biden, in an effort to deflect criticism over its human rights record, notably over the 2018 murder by Saudi agents of prominent journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi.
    ...and lose?
    The normalization process jeopardizes the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative sponsored by Saudi Arabia which called for Israel to withdraw from Arab territory it conquered during the 1967 Six-Day War, in return for peace and the normalization of relations between Arab nations and Israel.
    Any steps beyond the Israel-UAE agreement -- which Palestinian leaders condemned as a "stab in the back" -- are likely to be criticized by some regional governments and reignite criticism on the "Arab Street" that regional powers are abandoning the Palestinian people.

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