In Saudi media, a tug of war over relations with Israel
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'Palestine is no longer paramount. The issue is Iran'

In Saudi media, a tug of war over relations with Israel

Government outlets loyal to reformist crown prince Mohammed bin Salman paint a rosy picture of Israeli ties, but despite Iranian threat many citizens use Twitter to loudly disagree

In this photo provided by the United Nations, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud speaks during a signing ceremony at the United Nations, Tuesday, March 27, 2018. (Eskinder Debebe/United Nations via AP)
In this photo provided by the United Nations, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud speaks during a signing ceremony at the United Nations, Tuesday, March 27, 2018. (Eskinder Debebe/United Nations via AP)

A recent headline in the Arabic-language newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat asked readers, “Do you stand with Iran or Israel?”

The writer, Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid, is a seasoned editor of Saudi Arabia’s government-sponsored publications, and al-Sharq al-Awsat is among the Arab world’s most prestigious newspapers.

“It’s an embarrassing question, one which contradicts the most basic notions of our political culture,” al-Rashid wrote. Nevertheless, al-Rashid maintained that rethinking the Saudi relationship with the Jewish state was the only way forward.

As the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel emerges into the public eye, Saudi media are conducting an intense debate over normalization with the Jewish state, utilizing articles, tweets, and viral videos.

Ties between Israel and the conservative monarchies of the Gulf have long been the Middle East’s worst-kept secret. But in recent months, governments on both sides of the Red Sea have made increasingly public signals of solidarity, from reported diplomatic offensives in Egypt to tweets in support of Israel’s right to defend itself.

A shared fear of Iranian power, a reformer’s rise in Saudi Arabia, and a desire on the part of elites to get past the Palestinian issue have ushered in a new era, Simon Henderson, a Saudi observer and analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Times of Israel.

The reformer in question, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), has been identified with much of this high-level diplomatic flirtation.

“MBS regards the Palestinian issue as one to sort out but not to block relations with Israel,” Henderson said. “It’s no longer paramount. The paramount issue is Iran.”

In a recent interview in The Atlantic, Bin Salman seemed to confirm Israel’s right to exist, telling journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Israelis “have the right to have their own land.”

Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy speaks about the keen rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran at an AIJAC event in Melbourne, Australia, September 2, 2016. (Youtube Screenshot)

Bin Salman’s statement may have surprised Western observers. But in state-run Saudi media, it sank without a trace. With one exception — al-Khaleej al-Jadid, a Qatar-backed website — no Saudi outlet carried the Israel headline.

Some newspapers published translations of the interview, but with a rather different focus than many Israeli observers. Okaz, a Saudi newspaper, ran the headline: “MBS: Iran, the [Muslim] Brothers, and the Terrorists are the Evil Triangle.” ِAl-Riyadh, an economic daily read by the business elite, led with: “Bin Salman declares there is no such thing as Wahhabism.”

As for MBS’ recognition of Israel’s right to exist? The Arabic wording may leave room for interpretation. “Israelis and Palestinians have the right to their own private land,” said MBS. Okaz and al-Riyadh’s Arabic-language rendering uses the Arabic word “ard” for land, which could refer to the private property of individuals rather than the national right to a homeland or a state.

Regardless, Western observers are not the only ones who sense a changing media landscape.

Writing in al-Khaleej al-Jadid, Saudi journalist Muhammad al-Jawhari accused Bin Salman’s “media arms” of “laying the groundwork for normalization with Israel.” He warned of what he labeled “an aqal” — a traditional headscarf —“emblazoned with a Star of David.”

“A whole battalion of Saudi writers has conscripted their pens for this mission: liquidation of the Palestinian cause and normalization with Israel,” al-Jawhari wrote.

Palestinians prepare to set fire on an Israeli flag and portraits of US President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a protest at the border fence with Israel, east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza city, on April 13, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Thomas COEX)

Media kingdom

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a complex media landscape, with the government exercising significant control over the press. Government mouthpieces include the Saudi Press Agency, Arab News, and the TV station al-Arabiyya.

There are also intellectual papers of record, such as al-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Hayat, which are Saudi owned and influenced, but not quite government puppets. There are even tabloids, such as Okaz, which is wildly popular and independently owned; the paper has been described as “the closest thing the Kingdom has to The New York Post.”

“[Saudi media] is all government controlled or government influenced,” Henderson said. “Arab News, for example, directly reflects the public relations campaign of Muhammad bin Salman. This campaign emphasizes the positives, all the time. And yet there’s so much bad news out of Israel.”

Mohammad bin Salman wants the media to spin the new, closer relationship with Israel as a positive, Henderson says. Despite the yearning for increased economic and cultural normalization, however, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians remains a major hurdle.

Government-controlled media outlets maintain a superficially similar line when covering the conflict. Hard news stories and press statements run fairly standard rhetoric on Israel: the Golan Heights are “occupied,” and Jerusalem is “our paramount concern,” while those who perish are “martyrs.” Al-Arabiyya TV often runs items critical of Israel, such as a segment in February profiling Janna Jihad, a young Palestinian journalist and cousin of activist Ahed Tamimi.

Ahed Tamimi arrives for the beginning of her trial in the Israeli military court at Ofer military prison in the West Bank village of Betunia on February 13, 2018. (Flash90)

Henderson believes, however, that coverage is changing. While outlets like the Saudi Press Agency and Arab News may not yet toe a clear line, they try to maintain a positive approach even when covering recent events in Gaza, Henderson said.

“I sense the agonies they’re going through,” Henderson said. “Impressionistically, I sense that what they’re reporting now is more in sorrow than in anger.”

Small omissions may also indicate a government strategy to shift the public’s attention away from criticizing Israel. Nadim Koteich is a Lebanese journalist whose video columns are consistently syndicated on Saudi-controlled al-Arabiyya. His anti-Hezbollah activism has made him quite popular in Saudi Arabia, where his videos on al-Arabiyya regularly receive hundreds of thousands of views.

Yet Koteich’s video on recent events in Gaza, which he dubbed a “massacre,” was strikingly absent from al-Arabiyya’s archive.

At the same time, an increasing number of Saudi intellectuals, many of whom are avid and enthusiastic supporters of Mohammad Bin Salman, have begun to publicly call for normalization with Israel. Many of them publish their op-eds in the same publications that maintain harsh rhetoric on Israel in their news clips.

“If there were to be peace,” wrote Hamza bin Salim, a journalist for The Peninsula, a Saudi-owned newspaper, “Israel would instantly become the number one destination for Saudi tourism.”

Many journalists pushing for normalization, whether in tweets or in columns, cite the nefariousness of Hamas. In his remarks to The Atlantic, Bin Salman described an “evil triangle” — containing not only Iran and Sunni terrorist organizations, but the Muslim Brotherhood as well.

Illustrative: Iraqi men and children set the US and Saudi flags afire during a parade marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) International Day organised by the Popular Mobilisation units in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, on June 23, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI)

Some Saudis consider Hamas, an organization which has received Iranian support and which until recently was officially a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, to be a natural enemy of the new, liberal Saudi project.

“Iran is playing a malicious game in Gaza in cooperation with Hamas and they are mobilizing to provoke chaos,” Saudi blogger Mansour al-Khamis tweeted.

Al-Khamis added that the Great March of Return ought to be called the “Motolov March,” a reference to the improvised explosives used by Hamas militants during the recent Gaza protests.

Other journalists advocating normalization emphasized longstanding Saudi support for the Palestinian cause.

“Some people might think I’m against the Palestinian struggle, but that’s just not true,” tweeted pro-Bin Salman journalist Turki al-Hamad. “We’ve suffered for Palestine since 1948… development stalled for Palestine, freedoms were repressed because of Palestine. And if Palestine is ever created, it’ll just be another backwards Arab state. Enough!”

Hani al-Zahiri, a journalist at Okaz, echoed such sentiments. On May 5, he published an op-ed asserting that Saudi Arabia has much to gain from open relations with Israel — and besides, everyone else is doing it.

“No one has supported the Palestinian cause, financially and politically more than Saudi Arabia… without gratitude or thanks from anyone,” wrote al-Zahiri in Okaz. “Meanwhile, other the Arab and Muslim countries have been assessing the value of public diplomatic relations with Israel for many years, and they enjoy hundreds of billions of dollars in trade!”

“We can say loudly and clearly,” al-Zahiri concluded, “that as long as the Palestinians sit at the same table as the Israelis, nothing should stop Saudi Arabia from sitting and negotiating with them, either.”

Illustrative: An Iranian man holds a poster bearing images of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and Saudi King Salam during a parade marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) day in Tehran on June 23, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / STRINGER)

Not quite a monopoly

With the rise of social media, however, Saudis have more options for media than government sponsored propaganda. In addition to the government-owned press, a network of bloggers and Twitter users take advantage of social media to provide their own analysis of Saudi politics. More than one-third of the country is active on Twitter, producing more than 150 million tweets a month.

After Trump’s controversial promise in October to move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a clip went viral on Saudi social media: “The 10 Most Detestable Saudi Writers To Call for Normalization with Israel.” Al-Rashid made the list, as did Turki al-Hamad.

In cyberspace, the government’s restrictions on freedom of speech are somewhat loosened, and Saudis are more likely to challenge the Kingdom’s new direction. While traditionally pro-government papers have been friendly to publishing pieces which advocate normalization, Saudi Twitter has been less forgiving.

Al-Zahiri’s call for negotiations, for example, received widespread condemnation from Saudis on social media.

“Pure bullying — deserves no response,” tweeted Ahmad bin Rashid bin Sa’id, one of Saudi Arabia’s most popular Twitter users. “#Palestine_Is_Our_Nation’s_Struggle, #No_to_Normalization.”

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