Israel and Saudi Arabia said in US-brokered talks to improve relations

Jerusalem stands to benefit as Washington repairs ties with ‘pariah’ Riyadh and defuses criticism at home; young Saudis reportedly more inclined to favor normalization

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 14, 2021. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 14, 2021. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP)

Saudi Arabia is engaging in talks with Israel on economic ties and “security arrangements,” as it adjusts to shifting attitudes in the Middle East, where the Jewish state is not longer universally seen as an undisputed enemy, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

The kingdom has identified growing support among young Saudis for establishing ties and is moving toward advancing cooperation, according to the report.

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, but covert ties have warmed in recent years, as the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has increasingly been seeing Israel as a strategic partner in the fight against Iranian influence in the region.

Officials in Israel and Saudi Arabia now say it is not a matter of if, but rather when, the two countries publicly improve their relations, the report said.

Sources familiar with the developments told the newspaper that the Biden administration is helping to broker an agreement for commercial planes from Israel to have expanded access to Saudi airspace, while the Saudis are looking to gain control of two strategic Red Sea islands.

Currently, only flights between Tel Aviv and the United Arab Emirates, which normalized ties with Israel in 2020, fly over Saudi Arabia, passing over the northern tip. But Israel has not yet received such access for flights to India, Thailand, and China, which, as a result, are significantly longer than they need to be.

There is also benefit for Washington as it seeks to repair its ties with Riyadh. US President Joe Biden vowed during his election campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which US intelligence concluded was ordered by Prince Mohammed. An improvement of ties with Israel could temper criticism of Biden over a potential meeting with the prince.

The US is seeking a Biden visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia in a trip that could push forward interests for all three countries.

US President Joe Biden listens as he meets virtually with infant formula manufacturers from the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, June 1, 2022. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Saudi Prince Khalid bin Salman, brother of Prince Mohammed, recently visited Washington, where he told people in private that polling showed a change among Saudis under 30 in favor of diplomatic relations with Israel, people briefed on the talks were cited in the report as saying.

Riyadh has repeatedly said that its official position is that it will only normalize ties with Israel after the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Yet Saudi officials explained to the Wall Street Journal that support for the Palestinians is no longer a foregone conclusion, with many younger people disillusioned with the Palestinian Authority. In addition, there is Saudi resentment at Iran’s backing of the Hamas terror group that controls the Gaza Strip.

“If Hamas builds a relationship with Iran to protect themselves, then why don’t we have a relationship with Israel against Iran to protect ourselves?” one Saudi official said in the report.

People involved in the efforts noted that official diplomatic relations could still be years away, but the ongoing secret developments could speed up the process of establishing ties as both countries see Iran as a common threat.

The most likely first development, according to Israeli and Saudi officials, is an agreement for planes to fly over Israel and Saudi Arabia as part of security talks that would include the fate of the two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir. The existence of the negotiations about the islands was first reported by Axios.

This photo taken on January 14, 2014, through the window of an airplane, shows the Red Sea’s Tiran (foreground) and the Sanafir (background) islands in the Strait of Tiran between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia. (Stringer/AFP)

A Saudi takeover of security control of the strategic islands requires Israeli approval, under the terms of the Israel-Egypt peace deal. There is an international force on the islands, between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. Sources familiar with the developments say that all three countries are considering a proposal for the international force to leave and Saudi forces to take over instead, an arrangement that would also indicate improvements in ties between Israel and Riyadh.

The kingdom refrained from signing onto the Washington-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020 as the US and Israel had hoped, but is believed to have given the go-ahead to Bahrain, where it retains decisive influence, to join the normalization agreement with Israel alongside the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Sudan.

In late 2020, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, alongside other Israeli officials and then-US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, were said to have visited Saudi Arabia to meet with the crown prince, in the first known high-level meeting between an Israeli and a Saudi leader.

In addition, Israeli businessmen have been permitted to travel to Saudi Arabia to develop economic ties, people familiar with the visits said. Saudi Arabia’s major sovereign-wealth fund has already approved, for the first time, for Jared Kushner to invest money in Israeli companies. The fund has invested $2 billion with Kushner’s Affinity Partners.

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