Is The Saudi Kingdom Moving Towards Recognising Israel?
futuristic Saudi city of Neom on the Red Sea coast was the venue of the G20
virtual summit last week, but something of greater importance happened there on
Sunday night that may mark a tectonic shift in regional geopolitics. The reported covert meeting
between the Israeli prime minister and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
is seen as the most significant move yet towards the recognition of Israel by
While the Saudi
foreign minister has denied that any such meeting took place, some Israeli
officials have confirmed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the head of
Israel’s Mossad spy agency had flown to Saudi Arabia on Sunday night. There
have been reports of informal contacts between the two countries in the past,
but it would be the first direct interaction at the highest official level.
Many analysts believe
that it is a just a matter of time before the two sides establish diplomatic
relations. The kingdom has already blessed the recognition of the Jewish state
by the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. The development may be seen as a diplomatic
triumph for outgoing US President Donald Trump, but it also illustrates the
fast-changing dynamics of Middle East politics mainly resulting from Saudi-Iran
Curiously, it is all
happening as the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu pursues a more ruthless
policy of expanding Jewish settlements into occupied Palestinian territory and
annexing them to Israel. Unstinted support from the Trump administration gave
further impetus to Israeli expansionism. Trump not only shifted the US embassy
in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem but also approved Israeli expansionism.
In January this year,
President Trump announced what he described as the ‘deal of the century’, which
attempted to impose a one-sided ‘solution’ on the Palestinians. It provided for
unilateral Israeli annexation of significant territory in the West Bank and all
the settlements. It virtually buried the two-state policy by further sidelining
the Palestinians. Meanwhile, Jared Kushner’s peace plan succeeded in persuading
the UAE and Bahrain to recognize their secret liaison with Israel. Trump’s
son-in-law is seen as the architect of the Trumpian Middle East policy.
recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia would certainly be the biggest coup for
the maverick president. It is true that Riyadh for long had maintained secret
contacts with Israel, but they became more pronounced with the rise of the
ambitious crown prince who has developed a special relationship with Trump and
A major reason for
their closeness was Trump’s aggressive policy towards Iran. Saudi Arabia, along
with Israel, was among the nations who hailed Trump’s decision to pull America
out of the Iran nuclear deal. Trump had also looked on the other side of Saudi
military intervention in Yemen. Their mutual hostility towards Iran has also
been a major factor in bringing Israel and Saudi Arabia closer.
Over the past few
years, Riyadh has been sending out signals that it was ready for greater
cooperation with Israel. Mohammed bin Salman has been quoted as saying that he
didn’t consider Israel an enemy. But the fear of a backlash from extremist
elements stopped him from establishing open official relations with that
country. The absence of a public reaction from the UAE and Bahrain over their
recognition of Israel might have given him the confidence to break the taboo.
In a marked shift, Riyadh lifted restrictions on the publication of news and
articles about Israel.
With Egypt and Jordan
having recognized the Jewish state a long time ago, there are now fewer Middle
Eastern Muslim countries that have not ended their boycott of Israel. A major
justification given by the UAE for formalising its relations has been that it
could stop Israel from establishing new settlements in the occupied territory,
but there is no indication of Netanyahu agreeing to any such demand.
Normalisation of ties
with Israel without a two-state solution could further isolate Palestinians and
intensify conflict in the Middle East. There is no likelihood of any major change
in American policy in the region under the incoming Biden administration except
for the possibility of revival of the Iran nuclear deal.
Surely any Saudi move
to open up to Israel would be welcomed by the incoming US president who hails
from the Democratic Party. It remains to be seen whether the new administration
is able to persuade Israel to suspend the establishment of new settlements and
its planned annexation of part of the West Bank.
The shifting sands of
the Middle East have also opened a discussion on whether Pakistan should
revisit its policy towards Israel. In a recent interview, Prime Minister Imran
Khan mentioned pressure from some unspecified foreign leaders to normalise
relations with the Jewish state. But the foreign ministry denied there was any
suggestion to review Pakistan’s policy.
While the stated
policy is that there is no question of changing the country’s stance without Palestinians
getting their rights, there have been reports of Pakistan maintaining covert
contacts with Israel as in the case of the latter’s country’s military help
during the 1980s’ Afghan resistance against the Soviets.
There had been some
public encounter between officials of the two countries after 9/11, eg a brief
meeting between Khurshid Kasuri, the then foreign minister, and his Israeli
counterpart in Istanbul in September 2005. Israel hailed the meeting as
“historic and a huge breakthrough”. But the event drew criticism at home.
A major demonstration
of Israel’s desire to improve relations with Pakistan was seen when Gen
Musharraf was invited to address the American Jewish Congress during his visit
to New York in September 2005. The military ruler was greeted by a standing
ovation for initiating public diplomatic contacts with Israel. A moved
Musharraf said he did not expect a Pakistani leader “to be greeted by this
community with this sort of ovation”.
Musharraf spoke about
Pakistan-Israel relations, and said there was no natural enmity between the two
countries. But it was not possible for him to normalise relations with the
Jewish state without risking his survival in power. Any move to recognise
Israel will be seen as a betrayal to the Palestinian cause.