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Will Saudi Arabia establish full diplomatic ties with Israel?

Some excitement—and perhaps a lot more doubt—has been swirling in political and academic circles about the ongoing nature of Jerusalem’s Gulf-oriented approach to diplomatic, and hopefully, economic relations.

U.S. President Donald Trump with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman during their meeting on March 14, 2017, at the White House in Washington, D.C. Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.
U.S. President Donald Trump with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman during their meeting on March 14, 2017, at the White House in Washington, D.C. Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.

What do you do when you are condemned for allegedly ordering the murder of a journalist and your country is under fire for leading a war in Yemen? You try to turn the world’s focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of course. And that’s exactly what Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (known in media circles as “MBS”) is rumored to be doing.

“MBS said to be plotting Camp David-style handshake with Netanyahu” screamed one headline. “Saudi crown prince considering ‘game changing’ handshake with Israeli PM: Report” hollered another. According to the Qatari-funded Middle East Eye website, a Saudi task force is weighing ideas to boost MBS’s image at home and abroad, one of which entails him meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a “game-changing” summit hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump, branding the Saudi crown prince as “peacemaker.”

Not so fast, say a number of experts familiar with Israel-Saudi relations.

Joshua Krasna, an expert on strategic and political developments in the Arab world at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told JNS, “One thing I’ve learned over the years is ‘never say never.’ That being said, I don’t think it’s likely we will see formal diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, or indeed with any of the Gulf Arab states, at any time in the near future. There is no upside for them; they enjoy many of the fruits of the relationship now, so why pay the political and public cost of formalizing relations?”

However, according to a report in November, Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of the Rai al-Youm news site, claimed that MBS was touring Arab countries to gain backing for his effort to normalize relations with Israel.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 16, 2018. Credit: U.S. State Department Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, told JNS that regarding this trilateral summit, “each of the three leaders has a strong interest to make it happen, but there are a number of obstacles. [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump, of course, wants to show some progress. It’s been two years since he spoke of the ‘deal of the century.’ Netanyahu, of course, wants to see progress.”

Guzansky said this would boost Netanyahu’s theory that the “outside-in paradigm in the Middle East,” by which Israel can first establish diplomatic relations with Arab countries before resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, does work. This type of summit would prove for Netanyahu that “you don’t need the Palestinians to make progress on the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

“Most interesting is MBS,” he added. “He has a broken image, especially in Washington. These days, he is persona non grata in the U.S. He would love to get a photo op with Trump and Netanyahu. He is a very positive element in the Middle East, and this would show how positively he is viewed, although he would likely receive criticism at home among conservative elements.”

Last week, the U.S. Senate approved a resolution condemning Saudi Arabia over the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as for the ongoing Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Due to MBS’s troubles at home and abroad, “he needs this desperately,” said Guzansky. However, “the chances that this will happen are low. These are rumors.”

‘Ties with Israel not attractive to wider Arab constituency’

Krasna said that MBS is “subject to two competing vectors on this.”

The first is that “improving overt ties with Israel might ease the harsh criticism [the Saudis] are facing now in the U.S., especially on the Republican side. Netanyahu’s statement that the Khashoggi affair, however regrettable, should not affect Saudi security came two weeks before Trump’s statement on ‘business as usual’ with Riyadh.”

Thus, Krasna believes that the reports that Israel might have encouraged the White House to firmly support MBS “are credible.”

Second, “the complexity of MBS’s position currently, following the Khashoggi killing, will probably lead him to lower his profile, especially regarding his more far-reaching [in the Saudi context] initiatives and positions, and to pay more attention to shoring up public opinion within the kingdom. The issue of ties with Israel is not attractive to the domestic or the wider Arab constituency. Saudi Arabia, while it may view positively the steps of other Gulf States to increase the visibility of their ties with Israel or even encourage them, will therefore not do so itself in the foreseeable future.”

Krasna surmised that there is a possibility—“I would say 20-30 percent”—that Bahrain, like Oman, might invite Netanyahu to visit without establishing formal diplomatic ties.

“This is especially true if the United States and Saudi Arabia encourage it to do so,” he added.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu meeting with Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Credit: Benjamin Netanyahu via Twitter.

Anwar Majed Eski, chairman of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Saudi Arabia, doesn’t appear to believe that MBS would establish formal ties with Israel before the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he also doesn’t seem to agree with Netanyahu’s outside-in approach.

He told JNS, “The kingdom has made a commitment to normalize relations with Israel, and followed by Arab and Islamic countries, if Israel agrees and applies the Arab initiative, and makes a settlement with the Palestinians on the two-state solution. The kingdom’s involvement besides Egypt, America and Jordan in facilitating the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will help the rapprochement between the two countries. The conflict must be ended early. We are not enemies. We are driven into this enmity . . . ”

‘Cooperation and security coordination’

Of the news regarding the summit, Abdullah Swalha, director of the Center for Israel Studies in Amman, told JNS: “This is just a report by a media outlet that is funded by Qatar.”

“Regardless of this report, we should speak about the reality,” he said. “If we want to talk about the relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, we should talk about two things: What the two countries already achieved and future expectations of these relations. For the reality, I think we have something concrete. We can build on this relationship.”

Swalha said the Saudis and Israelis have a number of common interests in the region, including pushing back against Iranian aggression and opposing Islamic terror groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State. Additionally, both countries are American allies.”

That said, “they move and work together to achieve the U.S. interests or strategic policies in the region,” added Swalha. “There is some cooperation and security coordination between the two countries. This is the reality.

“But what about the expectations?” he posed. “What are we looking for in this relationship? How can we see this relationship in the future? One of the goals of Israel is to break [its] isolation in the region.”

Swalha pointed to Netanyahu’s recent visit to Oman, and Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev’s visit to the United Arab Emirates as one aspect of breaking Israel’s isolation. At the same time, Saudi Arabia refused to issue visas last year to Israeli chess players, thereby disqualifying itself as a host country for the international chess championship.

Clearly, that breakthrough for Israel is still far off.

“We need something concrete and not just an indication,” said Swalha. “If Israel is interested in breaking this isolation or in the warming of ties between Sunni Arab states or Gulf states, Israel should give those states some concessions on the Palestinian-Israeli track.”

“The more important thing,” he continued, “is that the common threats—Iran, ISIS or encountering Iranian domination in the region—are not enough to build an alliance between Gulf states or Arab world or Sunni Arab states with Israel … without building cultural and economic cooperation as well.”

Krasna tempered any excitement and laid the idea that Trump would hold a trilateral summit to rest.

“It seems to be that the much-heralded peace plan”—dubbed the “deal of the century” by the Trump administration, and led by senior adviser to the president Jared Kushner—“is supposed to have a significant Saudi-Gulf component, and this might serve Saudi and American damage-limitation efforts. But much time has passed since the Saudis engaged the Jordanians and Palestinians on ideas the latter firmly rejected, and King Salman has several times stressed his support of the Arab peace initiative, which includes an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.”

“So my opinion is that the ‘deal,’ if it is ever floated, will be DOA [dead on arrival]. Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are particularly ripe or interested.”

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