In a further small sign of warming Saudi attitudes to Israel, a retired Saudi general with ties to the government gave an interview to an Israeli TV station and said the two countries would be able to work together were Israel to accept the Saudi-initiated Arab Peace Initiative.
Anwar Eshki, spoke to Israel’s Channel 10 news during a remarkable event in Washington on Thursday, when he shared a platform with the incoming director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations with Israel, and while Saudi officials sometimes talk privately with Israeli journalists, they do not generally do so publicly. In 2007, at the height of a US-brokered effort to advance regional peace efforts, for instance, Saudi Arabia ejected from its embassy in Washington a group of Israeli journalists who sought to attend a briefing the Saudis were holding for western journalists on the sidelines of the Annapolis peace conference.
Eshki told the Israeli TV station that he and Gold had sat down together “to call for peace in the Middle East.” He said “Saudis and Israelis could work together when Israel announces that it accepts the Arab Initiative.”
In their back-to-back addresses at the event, held under the auspices of the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank, Gold and Eshki both espoused Israeli-Saudi peace and identified Iran as the chief threat to regional stability.
The partnership between the two men — already remarkable because of the absence of ties between their nations — is even more so given that Gold penned a withering book about the Saudis little more than a decade ago. In “Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism,” published in 2003, Gold highlighted “the ideology of hatred fostered” in a country he bitterly described as America’s “ostensible ally.”
In his address, 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 director-general in the coming days. He too spoke of the challenge posed to the Middle East by Iran, and warned against a weak nuclear accord with Tehran which would leave the Islamic republic as a nuclear threshold state.
Bloomberg News reported that representatives from the two countries have held five clandestine meetings over the past 17 months on the threat posed by Iran. Netanyahu has spoken repeatedly in recent months of the opportunities for new partnerships between Israel and other nations in the region who share its concern over Iran’s nuclear program and regional ambitions.
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. “But our hope is we will be able to address them fully in the years ahead.”
Eshki said flatly in his talk that Iran was seeking a nuclear arsenal.
While stopping short of fully endorsing the Arab Peace Initiative, 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.
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.
Raphael Ahren and AP contributed to this report.