“ Our country doesn’t have a problem with Jews. Our Prophet Muhammad married a Jewish woman. Not just a friend—he married her. Our neighbors were Jewish,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, made these comments in a 2018 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Magazine.
Still, in 1948, after having voted against the establishment of Israel a year earlier, the Saudis sent troops against the Jewish State, something they had no qualms to repeat in 1973. Saudi Arabia’s rejection of Israeli sovereignty continues today.
Yet, things that may indicate a Saudi willingness to review its position towards Israel have been happening over time.
Saudi Arabia shares some of Israel’s adversaries-certainly a big motivator- and the reality, in the words of Prince Salman, is that “Israel is a big and growing economy compared to its size.” According to the Washington Post, “Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is also “a known admirer of Israel’s tech sector and wants to sharpen security partnerships between the two countries.”
Although many observers have remarked that the Saudis’ primary goal in reestablishing normal relations with Israel is to create a new strategic alliance with America, the Saudis have been playing with Israel since at least 1937.
In 2015, Dore Gold, who would become director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, held a public conversation in Washington with Anwar Eshki, a retired Saudi general. The meeting had added significance because Gold had written an anti-Saudi book titled “Hatred’s Kingdom” (Gold apologized).
Previously, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert had met with a representative of the Saudi king in 2006.
In 2016, Eshki led a team of Saudi academics and businesspeople to Israel. And even though it wasn’t an official visit, the Saudis met with several Knesset members.
One year later, the kingdom’s Prince Turki al-Faisal and IDF Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror also met in Washington to advance a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.
Following their 1981 peace offer, the Saudis followed in 2002, demanding Israel leave all the territories it had seized in 1967 and establish a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. (A plan Menahem Beign rejected as “a sophisticated and rational system for the total destruction of Israel” while he called Saudi Arabia “a desert country where there is still discrimination from the Middle Ages, with the chopping off of hands and heads, with corruption that screams to the heavens”).
After saying that the Saudi proposal had “positive and negative aspects to it,” Netanyahu added: “This initiative is 13 years old, and the situation in the Middle East has changed since it was first proposed.”
In 2019, a Saudi blogger, Mohammed Saud, visited Israel and Palestinian territories on a trip officially sponsored by Israel’s foreign ministry.
The blogger, who had called for normalization between the two countries, was chased out of Al-Aqsa Mosque by Palestinian residents, who called him “trash,” “cheap,” and “Zionist” and spat in his face.”
Netanyahu reportedly met with Mohammed bin Salman in 2020, at the new Saudi megacity of Neom, with Mike Pompeo, then the US Secretary of State. (the Saudis, however, denied the visit).
As ties between the two countries deepened, a growing hope for normalization intensified.
Military correspondent Alon Ben-David visited Riyadh in July 2022, traveling on a non-Israeli passport.
A year later, in 2023, three young Israelis spent eight days in Riyadh participating in a video game tournament for a French and a Danish team. The three had entered with Israeli passports, were given a round-the-clock security detail, a private car with a driver, and took the top $400,000 award after their stay.
Earlier, another three Israelis had participated in a FIFA video tournament in Riyadh
Then, in September, a delegation of Israeli officials traveled to Saudi Arabia to attend a meeting of Unesco, an organization Israel left in 2019, claiming that the international body was biased against them.
The rush is due in grand part to the U.S. election. March 2024 is considered the last opportunity to reach an agreement before the US elects a new President.
The obstacles to overcome are not easy
Saudi Arabia has raised the stakes because it seeks a U.S. security guarantee and the technology to build a nuclear energy industry that includes domestic enrichment of uranium, something the United States has never facilitated in another country.
By using the Chinese card, the Saudis have been exerting additional pressure. In September of this year, the communications behemoth Huawei Technologies, which the US believes to be a spy agency of the Chinese Communist Party, constructed a cloud data center in Riyadh. It also announced it would invest $400 million in the Saudi Arabian cloud market over the following five years.
The Saudi prince even insinuated charging in yuan for oil rather than dollars.
“Containing Chinese influence is an objective worth seeking,” wrote Amos Harel for “Haaretz,” but “America’s new treaty ally will be a leader with a history of coercing his neighbors and behaving in unpredictable, often destabilizing ways.”
President Biden may also face strong opposition from progressives in the Democratic party and the Republicans, who will fight anything his administration proposes.
Similar political obstacles confront Netanyahu. His coalition members will oppose any concession to the Palestinians that involves ceding control of any area, as the Saudis and Americans demand, leading to overthrowing his administration.
No less significant are the military objections voiced by Israel’s military chief, Herzl Halevi, the Military Intelligence director, Aharon Haliva, Mossad chief David Barnea, and the heads of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, as well as former Mossad director Tamir Pardo and former Military Intelligence chief Tamir Hayman.
This situation is mirrored in Saudi Arabia, where only 2% of young Saudis support normalizing relations with Israel (compared with 75% in the United Arab Emirates and 73% in Egypt).
Gargantuan as the task may be, “if a deal comes together,” said American Journalist Fareed Zakaria, “ the Middle East’s strongest military and most technologically advanced power (Israel) will be allied to the region’s strongest economic power (Saudi Arabia) — which is still the swing supplier of the world’s oil — under a U.S. security architecture.”
In theory, Alon Pinkas recently wrote, the normalization deal between Saudi-Arabia and Israel and the U.S. interests” is a beautiful, win-win-win no-brainer deal. In practice, it is exorbitantly costly for the U.S. and is arguably not transformational for the Middle East.”