To hear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, much-warmed ties between Israel and the entire Arab world are imminent, if not already taking shape. This week, his oft-made claim that moderate Sunni states are willing to bury the hatchet even before Jerusalem signs a peace deal with the Palestinians received significant backing in a newspaper report, which purportedly revealed Israeli-Saudi Arabia negotiations over the establishment of formal economic ties.
But the path to full-fledged peace treaties remain long and arduous, experts say. Arab leaders currently have little interest in upgrading their clandestine ties with Israel, which currently focus on intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism measures.
Even those who take a more upbeat view, and see the US administration’s push for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as a genuine opportunity for Riyadh to at least start formalizing its ties with Jerusalem, say it won’t happen without Israel showing it’s serious about peace.
On Saturday, the Times of London reported on a “dramatic move that would put the Jewish state on a path to normal relations with the bastion of Sunni Islam and guardian of the two sacred Muslim cities.”
Citing anonymous Arab and American sources, the paper noted that initially these links would include opening Saudi airspace to Israeli aircraft and allowing Israeli businesses to operate on its territory.
Against the background of the Gulf states’ 70-year-old boycott of Israel — Jerusalem formally still considers Saudi Arabia an enemy state and prohibits its citizens from entering the country — such baby steps would be nothing short of a revolution.
Even before the London Times report, US President Donald Trump had for weeks fanned speculation over a larger regional deal that would include the pragmatic Sunni camp, as has Netanyahu.
“Many nations are changing their attitudes toward Israel very rapidly. And I have to say that nowhere, nowhere, is this happening so dramatically and so rapidly than in the Arab world,” Netanyahu said earlier this month during a conference in West Africa. “Many Arab countries no longer see Israel as their enemy. They see Israel as their ally, I would even say, their indispensable ally in the fight against terrorism and in seizing the future of technology and innovation.”
But it’s a long leap from seeing Israel as a counter-terror ally to opening an Israeli Embassy in the middle of Riyadh, especially with the Palestinian issue unresolved and the Jewish state openly criticized throughout the Arab world, moderate or not.
Several analysts focusing on Arab-Israel relations said the Saudis and other Gulf states will insist on working with Jerusalem behind closed doors, refusing to formalize ties until the Palestinian problem has been solved.
“Without some serious movement on the peace process there will be no qualitative change in relations with Saudi Arabia,” maintained Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
Dismissing the anonymous sources quoted by the London Times, he argued that such articles serve Israel’s interests. “They attempt to demonstrate that the Palestinian game isn’t the only game in town. And it puts pressure on Abu Mazen,” he said, referring to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
‘Why should the Saudis buy the cows if they get the milk for free?’
Such reports can be seen as trial balloons to gauge the Arab public’s feelings about an overt alliance with Israel. But without serious progress on the Palestinian front, the status quo works just fine with the powers that be in Riyadh, Teitelbaum argued.
“Why should the Saudis buy the cows if they get the milk for free?” he asked, asserting that Israel willingly provides the kingdom with the intelligence and security assistance it needs without any public declarations.
“I don’t see Saudis leaders, who are under threat by ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood and are challenged by the mostly conservatives elites in in the country, agreeing to open an economic Israeli office in Riyadh,” he said. “I just don’t see it. It’s just not worth it for them.”
Full diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Jerusalem, modeled after Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, remain “unlikely,” agreed Gregory Gause, a leading expert on Arab politics at Texas A&M University. “I am sure that all sorts of things are going on behind the scenes, involving anti-Iranian measures. But that is not new.”
Others, though, say the Saudis may not insist on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal being signed and sealed before talking about normalizing ties, imagining the two tracks working in parallel.
The very fact that Trump is making a bid to restart peace talks — two of his most trusted advisers will be in Israel this week for talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah — could potentially trigger the onset of Arab-Israeli normalization, according to Yoel Guzansky, an expert on the Gulf monarchies at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies.
“There is some smoke, but not real fire yet,” said Guzansky.
Netanyahu’s vision of an Arab-Israeli detente preceding a Palestinian peace agreement is often called the “outside-in” approach, as opposed to the traditional view, known as “inside-out,” that promises Israel full relations with much of the Muslim world after a final-status deal is signed.
In light of Trump’s eagerness to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, a dual track — “outside-in and inside-out in parallel” — could work, Guzansky posited. “Negotiations will start and the Gulf countries will start taking small positive steps vis-a-vis Jerusalem.”
Dan Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel, also believes that advancement on the Palestinian track and a larger Israeli-Arab detente will have to coincide.
“There is interest in the Gulf to open relations with Israel. It definitely builds on the strategic alignment that has developed as the Gulf states and Israel share the same adversaries,” Shapiro, now a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, said Monday.
“That said, it’s difficult to imagine the Gulf Arab states, and the Saudis in particular, openly beginning those normalization gestures, unless they can point to very concrete steps that give them confidence that a two-state solution that achieves Palestinian aspirations for independence and a state of their own, as part of a package that gives Israel recognition and security, is really on the horizon.”
These processes, added Shapiro, “are much more likely to move together in parallel rather than in a sequence that says first normalization with the Arab world and only later clarity on the two-state outcome.”
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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