Anyone who expected a dramatic breakthrough in Israel-Saudi relations during U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to the kingdom was disappointed, as was predictable. The Saudis still aren’t ready for far-reaching moves and want to take things slowly. On the face of it, they are also sticking to their standard policy of recent years—the assertion that progress toward normalization will be achievable only after the Saudi peace proposal is implemented, including the establishment of a Palestinian state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital.
But behind this official stance, there is another Saudi Arabia. One proof of this is the approval it gave on Friday for Israeli flights to use its airspace. Other evidence is still under wraps, from senior Israeli officials visiting Saudi Arabia to a long series of deals, mostly related to security and technology.
The thawed ties between Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) will certainly help continue this process. Officially, of course, both sides stuck to their guns: Biden said in a briefing that he scolded MBS about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and MBS’s staff said that the crown prince had taken the president to task for the death of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh.
We can assume that notwithstanding these official accounts, the atmosphere of the meeting was productive. The U.S. wants the Saudis to increase their oil output to help bring down global fuel prices, and the Saudis want improved relations with Washington. They see Israel as a vital conduit to the Americans and a key player in regional stability. The two countries—along with most of the nations in the region, whose leaders took part in a conference with Biden—will try to promote an alliance against hostile entities in the Middle East, primarily Iran.
While Saudi Arabia is careful to keep its ties with Israel a secret, the states that belong to the Abraham Accords continue to enhance them. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi’s upcoming visit to Morocco is another expression of the growing bilateral security ties between Israel and Morocco. Like his visit to Bahrain, Kochavi will be welcomed as an honored guest in Rabat. Morocco wants aid from Israel and approval for business deals in a variety of fields, some of which will move ahead during the visit.
But while Israel’s diplomatic-security apparatus is focused on regional strategy, it finds itself dragged back into local affairs. On Saturday night, four rockets were fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip, a reminder that the Palestinians aren’t going anywhere. It appears that Hamas was not directly or indirectly responsible for the rockets, but the defense establishment is concerned that residents of Ashkelon had to run for shelter in the middle of the night for the second time in a month.
As of Saturday night, the motive for the rocket attack wasn’t clear. Some say it was an expression of the Palestinians’ disappointment at the Biden visit, but the IDF tends to connect them to the comparative anarchy in Gaza and the growing amount of weapons there. If the first theory is correct, it’s not clear why the rockets weren’t fired when Biden was still in Israel, in an attempt to overshadow the visit.
In response, the IDF implemented its policy since Operation Guardian of the Walls and carried out airstrikes against key Hamas targets—in this case, an underground facility used to produce raw materials for long-range rockets and a second facility. These strikes had multiple goals: to respond to the rocket fire; to deter Hamas from further actions and force the organization to stop the rocket fire; to establish Hamas as the sole entity in charge of Gaza; and to keep it from building up its military capabilities.
If there is no further rocket fire, Israel will want to keep the 14,000 Gazans who work in Israel employed as a method of improving the quality of life in Gaza and thereby applying pressure on Hamas.
Yoav Limor is a veteran journalist and defense analyst.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.