The US and Israel are using all means of persuasion within their considerable repertoire of diplomatic, military, economic and other measures to get as many Arab and Islamic countries as possible to sign ‘peace agreements’ and formalize their relations with Israel. The recent agreement between Bahrain and Israel to this effect has refocused attention on the Saudis given their substantial influence over Bahrain, and whether and if so under what circumstances the Saudis will formally decide to normalize relations with Israel.
There have been reports in the media for at least several years to the effect that Saudi Arabia and Israel have been furtively expanding their relations through unofficial contacts and agreements, including in terms of military cooperation. In most reports this is ascribed to their mutual enmity towards Iran. For example, in 2018:
The Swiss newspaper Basler Zeitung revealed the fact that there exists a “secret alliance” between Saudi Arabia and Israel, intended “to restrain Iran’s expansion in the region, despite the absence of any official relations between the two countries.”
“There is an intensive secret cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel in order to achieve the main goal of curbing Iran’s expansion project and undermining its regional ambitions,” said the report. It added that “there exists indeed military cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Tel Aviv.”
According to the newspaper, “Riyadh seeks to intercept missiles coming from Yemen. Observers from Tel Aviv and Riyadh are confirming that cooperation between the security services of Israel and Saudi Arabia is very advanced, although Saudi Arabia has been officially denying any sort of cooperation with Israel.”
Earlier, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said in a radio interview that “there were several contacts with Saudi Arabia, but they were kept secret at the request of Riyadh.” LINK
A few reports have also noted that another topic that has been emphasized is the acquisition of spying equipment, so that the Saudis can monitor the communications and activities of critics and dissidents. The latter aspect of increasing cooperation received considerably more attention – for a while – after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey. In 2018 The New York Times reported:
A Saudi dissident close to the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi has filed a lawsuit charging that an Israeli software company helped the royal court take over his smartphone and spy on his communications with Mr. Khashoggi.
The lawsuit puts new pressure on the company, the NSO Group, and on the government of Israel, which licenses the company’s sales to foreign governments of its spyware, known as Pegasus. More broadly, the suit also calls new attention to Israel’s increasingly open alliance with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies.
Saudi Arabia and its allies like the United Arab Emirates have never recognized the Jewish state but have quietly found common cause with it in opposition to Iran. Since the Arab Spring uprisings, Israel and those monarchies also appear to have found an alignment of interest in defending the established Arab order.
A report by the Israel-based news outlet Haaretz also commented on the allegations that ‘premium Israeli spyware’ was involved in the Khashoggi case at some depth.
Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia has gone to great lengths to keep up appearances that it is committed to the Palestinian cause and will not have any contact with Israel, much less normalize relations, until a peace agreement is concluded that is accepted by the Palestinian people, with the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 providing the benchmark for the fundamental terms and conditions of such an accord. The dual track approach has occasionally created difficulties when details of secret meetings have been revealed, as in early 2019:
In mid-February 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, flew to Warsaw for a highly unusual conference. Under the auspices of the US vice-president, Mike Pence, he met the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and two other Gulf states that have no diplomatic relations with Israel. The main item on the agenda was containing Iran. No Palestinians were present. Most of the existing links between Israel and the Gulf have been kept secret – but these talks were not. In fact, Netanyahu’s office leaked a video of a closed session, embarrassing the Arab participants. LINK
The announcement that Bahrain has also decided to normalize relations with Israel has once again drawn attention to the unofficial contacts and relations between the Saudis and Israel. Following Bahrain’s decision the New Arab news outlet commented:
Bahrain’s move to formally establish relations with Israel could not have happened without Saudi Arabia’s green light, another step in what observers call Riyadh’s “alternative normalisation” of ties with the Jewish state…
The move put a spotlight on the potential role of Riyadh, which has so far fended off pressure from US President Donald Trump to follow suit.
The development, praised by Trump as “truly historic”, was unlikely to have happened without the silent endorsement of Riyadh, which holds enormous leverage over Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia contributed to a $10 billion financial aid package in 2018 to cash-strapped Bahrain, and also sent troops there in 2011 to quash protests and shore up the position of the ruling family following an ‘Arab Spring’ uprising.
“I trust that the kingdom of Bahrain consulted with the Saudis on this decision out of respect for them,” Marc Schneier, an American rabbi who is an advisor to Bahrain’s king, told AFP. “The Bahrain government has been very respectful of the Saudi position throughout this process.”
Saudi officials have publicly remained tight-lipped over the development, but a source close to the establishment hinted it was a concession to Trump after he exerted enormous pressure on Riyadh to form diplomatic ties with Israel.
Saudi Arabia is unlikely to make a similar deal with Israel immediately, as doing so without a resolution to the Palestinian issue would be seen as a betrayal of the cause and damage its image as the leader of the Muslim world.
Moreover, many analysts say the Saudis do not feel a pressing need to do so after having cultivated covert ties with Israel, with particular emphasis on confronting Iran, even as they have voiced steadfast support for an independent Palestinian state and the pillars of the Arab Peace Initiative.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia agreed to permit UAE flights to Israel to overfly its territory, in another concrete sign of the kingdom’s cooperation with the Jewish state.
“This is what I would call ‘alternative normalisation’”, Ryan Bohl, of the US geopolitical think tank Stratfor, told AFP.
“Though Saudi will remain slower on this path, it’s clear the kingdom is open to normalisation and will explore growth in the relationship through increasingly public, though likely indirect, ties.”
The New Arab also notes that, despite its public stance, pro-government Saudi media outlets have repeatedly tested public reaction by publishing reports advocating closer ties with Israel as a way of gauging public opinion and the likely strength of opposition to such a development. There is still considerable concern that it would generate a strong backlash that could be difficult to manage and contain.
Saudi Arabia will be closely monitoring public reaction to the agreement in Bahrain, both in that country as well as in Saudi Arabia and around the region.
“Saudi Arabia often uses Bahrain as a testing ground for its future policies,” Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington told AFP.
“But then Saudi Arabia’s calculations for normalising relations with Israel are genuinely distinctive from those of a small littoral Gulf state without the religious heft and responsibility of the kingdom.”
The Times of Israel made some similar observations and drew some similar conclusions, commenting:
Regional power player Saudi Arabia remained noticeably silent following Friday’s announcement of a normalization agreement between Israel and Bahrain.
Bahrain is seen as a client state of its neighbor and close ally Saudi Arabia, and the tiny Gulf state is not likely to have moved forward with normalization without approval from Riyadh…
The New York Times late on Friday quoted unnamed Trump administration officials who have been pushing the Saudis to recognize Israel saying that this possibility remains remote at best for now.
Opening official ties with Saudi Arabia would be a historic achievement for Israel, and mark a significant shift in the region. The Saudis have remained non-committal, however, despite support for normalization from Washington and shared interests with Israel…
Israel’s Intelligence Ministry said in a report earlier this month that Riyadh’s security concerns closely align with Jerusalem’s, paving the way for cooperation.
“The kingdom’s network of threats largely overlap with Israel’s network of threats, which may serve as the basis for military and intelligence cooperation in a bilateral framework or as part of regional alliances,” the report said.
At the civilian level, the Saudi “Vision 2030” program outlining the country’s long-term goals, including the hope of diversifying the Saudi economy, presents “opportunities in the areas of technology exports, trade channel development, and cooperation in energy and electricity, agriculture, food and water, aviation, tourism and employment,” according to the report.
The “moderate and quiet rapprochement” between Israel and Saudi Arabia that has taken place over recent years was made possible by political and economic changes in the world, among them the election of US President Donald Trump; the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal; fluctuating oil prices; wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen; the decreasing importance of the Palestinian question; and the rise of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the ministry’s researchers posited.
The report suggests that many in Israel share the opinion noted above, namely that the Saudis would rather continue with ‘alternative normalization’ for the moment, while maintaining optimism that support for the Palestinians in the Arab world ‘is waning’ (citing as evidence of this the refusal of the Arab League to adopt a resolution last week condemning the normalization of relations with Israel by the UAE). It also noted:
Kushner, who is seen as a key player in both normalization agreements, earlier this month met Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman in Saudi Arabia’s northwest Neom region, the home of a massive high tech hub being built by the oil giant and reportedly the site of the first open business deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Unless there is a major unexpected development, all available information indicates that the Saudi’s will continue with the dual-tracked ‘alternative normalization’ for as long as possible.
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