An extremely unusual public meeting of high-ranking Israeli and Saudi officials took place in Washington on Thursday, when the incoming director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry shared a stage — and shook hands — with a retired Saudi general who is a former top adviser to the Saudi government.
In their back-to-back addresses to the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank, Dore Gold and Anwar Eshki both espoused Israeli-Saudi peace and identified Iran as the chief threat to regional stability.
Eshki spoke at length of Iran’s hostile and aggressive actions in the region and signaled that peace with Israel, based on the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative, was a top priority. He also spoke of the need for a joint Arab military force to increase regional stability.
Gold, the current head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs think tank, is expected to be confirmed as the Foreign Ministry chief in the coming days. He too spoke of the challenge posed to the Middle East by Iran, and warned of a weak nuclear accord with Tehran which would leave the Islamic republic as a nuclear threshold state.
Bloomberg News reported that the two countries, longtime foes with no diplomatic relations, have held five clandestine meetings over the past 17 months on the threat posed by Iran. Long-rumored back-channel talks between Jerusalem and Riyadh have never been officially confirmed.
Shimon Shapira, described by Bloomberg as an expert on Lebanese terror group Hezbollah who took part in the meetings, said: “We discovered we have the same problems and same challenges and some of the same answers.”
While Gold and Eshki stressed that they were not speaking as official representatives of their nations, but rather as foreign policy experts, they expressed hope that their states could find common ground in the face of regional challenges.
“Our standing today on this stage does not mean we have resolved all the differences that our countries have shared over the years,” Gold said, according to Bloomberg News. “But our hope is we will be able to address them fully in the years ahead.”
While stopping short of fully endorsing the Arab Peace Initiative, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that he welcomed the general idea behind it — a regional agreement between Israel and the moderate Arab states.
The Arab Peace Initiative, originally proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002, has many problematic aspects to it, the prime minister said, such as its call for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and the return of Palestinians refuges to Israel. “There are positive aspects and negative aspects to it,” he told Israeli diplomatic correspondents at a rare on-record briefing. “This initiative is 13 years old, and the situation in the Middle East has changed since it was first proposed. But the general idea — to try and reach understandings with leading Arab countries — is a good idea.”
In the framework proposed by the initiative, all Arab and Islamic states would establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel after the successful conclusion of the peace process with the Palestinians.
The Israeli government has never fully endorsed the plan. But Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that given Iran’s nuclear and regional aspirations, the moderate Arab states and Israel have a common enemy and grounds for increased cooperation.
Meanwhile, a new telephone poll conducted by an Israeli college among citizens of Saudi Arabia concluded that the Saudi public is far more concerned about the threats of Iran and the Islamic State group than Israel, and that the vast majority of Saudis support the decade-old peace offer to the Jewish state.
The International Disciplinary Center’s poll found that 53 percent of Saudis named Iran as their main adversary, while 22% said it is the Islamic State group and only 18 percent said Israel. The poll, conducted in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, surveyed 506 Saudis over the phone and had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.
The results indicates significant common ground between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Netanyahu has been outspoken in his criticism of an emerging nuclear deal between Iran and global powers, saying the deal will leave much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact. He has also claimed that unnamed Arab countries, presumably Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf countries, share his concerns.
“What we think here in Israel about the Saudis is not exactly what they are,” said Alex Mintz, who heads the IDC’s Institute for Policy and Strategy and oversaw the survey. “There is a great identity of interests and threats and agendas … some would even like to join forces with Israel.”
The questioners told respondents that they worked for the IDC, though they did not say they or the school were Israeli. Mintz said few people questioned the source of the survey, and those who did raise questions did not make the connection to Israel. He said there were no unpleasant exchanges.
Raphael Ahren and AP contributed to this report.