Israel has had an old dream to hold a public dialogue with the Saudis as part of a pro-American regional coalition against the Shiites’ growing strength. The Saudis weren’t interested in making this public, but now they have taken a small step with major repercussions: IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who isn’t a politician but is a figure of national stature in Israel, is speaking directly to the Saudi public about the interests shared by the two countries, including security cooperation.
This text can’t be random. It was coordinated between Israel and Saudi Arabia, word for word. Hosting an Israeli chief of staff in a Saudi media outlet isn’t just sticking a finger in the Palestinians' eyes, it’s mainly giving the Iranians, the Syrians and Hezbollah the finger. It’s another step in the Saudi royal family’s political activism, just like the affair which led to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s resignation on Saudi soil.
What’s hiding behind this interview is likely certain movement in the American Mideast peace plan, which has been concocted for months by US President Donald Trump’s Mideast envoys, Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner. In March, Trump will have to decide whether to adopt the plan and got for it with all his might, or to give up after realizing there is no chance of implementing it.
Several months ago, Israel and Saudi Arabia reached a certain agreement—brokered by the United States—on trust-building measures between the two countries. The Saudis asked the Israelis for two declarative moves and two practical moves: On the declarative level, they asked the Israeli government to declare that it accepts the two-states-for-two-people idea. As far as the Saudis are concerned, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's old declaration on this issue is insufficient. They further demanded that the Israeli government would declare its acceptance of the Saudi peace plan, with the required amendments. That didn’t happen.
On the practical level, Israel was asked to make a gesture towards the Palestinians and hand over a tiny part of Areas B and C. That didn’t happen either. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman couldn’t even get the government to approve the whitewashing of illegal buildings around Qalqilya. The Saudis’ second practical request—building only within the settlement blocs—is actually being maintained by Israel.
At the same time, the Saudis were supposed to carry out three practical moves: Open their airspace to Israeli civil flights, open communication lines between Israel and Saudi Arabia and allow a few Israeli businesspeople to work with Saudi Arabia. That hasn’t happened yet either.
Nevertheless, there are signs that the countries are moving closer together: Quite a few commentaries published in the Saudi press recently reflect the government’s stance that “even if we don’t like Israel, it doesn’t mean we don’t have shared interests.” This is the way to prepare the public opinion, just like the Israeli chief of staff’s interview to a Saudi news website.
Now we must wait and see whether these signs are indeed the harbingers of progress, of a breakthrough. The Americans are expecting a dramatic Israeli move, which Israel is unable to perform at this time due to the current coalition structure. The American president’s decision whether to put any effort into a Saudi-Israeli agreement depends, therefore, on Prime Minister Netanyahu's decision to change the composition of his coalition—or to call elections.