Saudi Arabia and Israel: quiet prelude to reported landmark meeting

Reports that Netanyahu held secret talks in Saudi Arabia come after years of low-key diplomacy between the two Mideast powers.
Published November 23, 2020

Bombshell reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held secret talks in Saudi Arabia with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman come after years of low-key diplomacy between the two Mideast powers.

Saudi Arabia on Monday denied Israeli media reports of the talks, saying "No such meeting occurred." Netanyahu's office was not immediately available to comment on the reports.

The meeting, if it did take place, 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.

Here are some key points on the prelude to the reported meeting and its likely implications.

Covert diplomacy

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 covert diplomacy burst into the open in August when the United Arab Emirates announced it was normalising relations with the Jewish state.

Also read: Shockwaves out of UAE

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 to the deal in a move seen as proceeding only with a nod from its giant neighbour.

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 normalising 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 regardless in a shift spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed, the ambitious young de facto leader.

Analyse: Changes in the Muslim world

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 Saudi stand to gain?

The Gulf oil monarchies and the Jewish state are all staunch US 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.

Saudi attempts to attract foreign investment to fund its ambitious Vision 2030 economic diversification plan appear to be pushing the kingdom closer to Israel.

A centrepiece of Vision 2030 is NEOM, a $500 billion planned megacity on the west coast where the historic meeting reportedly took place. Observers say the kingdom requires Israeli expertise in areas including manufacturing, biotech and cyber security for the project.

“The Saudis recognise 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.

“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.”

...and lose?

The normalisation process jeopardises the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative sponsored by Saudi Arabia which called for Israel to withdraw from Arab territory occupied in 1967, in return for peace and the normalisation 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 criticised by some regional governments and reignite criticism on the “Arab Street” that regional powers are abandoning the Palestinian people.

Header image: This combination of pictures shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu giving a statement in Jerusalem on November 19; and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman addressing the G20 summit in Riyadh on November 22. — AFP