With Iran as the real enemy, Saudi-Israel ties will be based on interests
Analysis: Retired Saudi general implies his country is willing to give up the Arab peace initiative and postpone the Jerusalem issue until the last stage of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. There will be no normalization with the Arab world, he clarifies, until Israel works to solve the situation with the Palestinians.
He is a very likable, experienced and curious person, and has no problem engaging in a dialogue with Israelis. My guess is that in Saudi Arabia’s tightly closed kingdom, Eshki wouldn’t have allowed himself to talk to Israel without receiving the green light from the highest authorities in Riyadh.
In that first interview to Yedioth Ahronoth, the general from Jeddah warned that the diplomatic moves must be put on the fast track, because “if peace isn’t reached in the Netanyahu era, peace will slip away from our hands.” At the time, Eshki was in the middle of talks—which were mostly confidential—with Dr. Dore Gold, who served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s advisor. He got on a plane and visited Jerusalem twice (at least), and held a marathon of confidential talks with Israeli emissaries. When the dialogue was exposed, it raised numerous questions, and Western intelligence agencies conducted surveillance. But Israel failed to seize the opportunity, and things fell apart when Gold left and Eshki began acting discreetly.
In the events that have taken place since then, everything has to do with everything: King Salman kicked out the official heir to the throne in favor of his young son; Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pressured the parliament in Cairo to transfer the islands of Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi sovereignty; US President Donald Trump landed in Riyadh’s palaces, and the king gave him a lesson introduction on the 55 Arab and Muslim countries which would agree to leverage relations with Israel as long as progress is made with the Palestinians. And then the crisis with Qatar was born, and Saudi Arabia—backed by Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE—is insisting on tightening the siege around the emirate. And behind all these moves, insistent rumors are flying around about a secret dialogue between Riyadh and Jerusalem.
Last week, the Saudi general emerged again, presenting fascinating world views in an interview with German newspaper Deutsche Welle and tying the ends together. Here’s a summary: The islands of Sanafir and Tiran are being transferred to Saudi Arabia only after a sweeping commitment was received to allow Israeli ships to sail freely in the Tiran Straits. According to Eshki, ownership transfer turns the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty into an international agreement which binds Saudi Arabia and will serve as a basis for the development of collaborations. But, he dissolved illusions, there will be no normalization until Israel works to solve the situation with the Palestinians.
And then he drops the bomb about the plan that has been put on the back burner: Any solution reached by the parties would be sponsored by Jordan (in the West Bank) and Egypt (in Gaza). This is no longer an unrealistic declaration about a Palestinian state torn between Gaza and Ramallah, but the creation of a sort of Egyptian-Jordanian umbrella and getting the two countries involved in the solution. Whatever the Palestinians accept, he adds, will be accepted by us in Saudi Arabia too. In other words, Saudi Arabia is willing to give up the Arab peace initiative, which would force Israel to mark borders and argue about the right of return. Saudi Arabia would also agree, according to Eshki, to postpone Jerusalem’s division to the last stage of the talk, to prevent the negotiations from reaching a deadlock.
As the real enemy is Iran, the relations with Israel will be shaped only “according to interests,” Eshki says. The intensity of the relations will be determined according to the intensity of the peace process. In Saudi Arabia’s eyes, the renewed alliance with the United States is much more important, and Israel is a supporting player. Putting it in the simplest terms: With all due respect, Israel is invited to contribute intelligence information, technology and matters which will guarantee the stability of the kingdom’s regime against Tehran’s schemes.