Yuval Steinitz, an Israeli cabinet minister, confirmed on Sunday that Israel has had secret talks with Saudi Arabia over Iran — a serious concern both countries share. Despite the fact that secret dealings between Saudi Arabia and Israel have been widely speculated about for months, Mr. Steinitz’s statement is the first time an official from either country has addressed the rumors.
However, despite the highly publicized statement from the Israeli energy minister, neither Saudi Arabia nor Israel has commented on the issue. Both countries have publicly identified Iran as the main threat to peace and stability in the Middle East. Meanwhile as U.S. President Donald Trump continues to push for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a common interest has arisen that might make way for the two countries to collaborate.
Saudi Arabia maintains its position that any alliance with Israel depends on the Arab Peace Initiative adopted in 2002. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir told Reuters in an interview on Thursday that before diplomatic, trade or military relationships with Saudi Arabia can be established, Israel will need to withdraw from the Arab lands it occupied during the 1967 Middle East war, including East Jerusalem.
“We have always said that if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative that Israel would have enjoyed normal relations, economic, political, diplomatic relations with all of the Arab countries, and so until that happens, we don’t have relations with Israel,” he stated.
Steinitz, also a member of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s security cabinet, failed to give any further details on the talks Israeli officials have allegedly had with Riyadh. In a statement given to Army Radio, he revealed that Israel has ties with many Arab and Muslim countries and that the reason they are kept covert is not due to Israel’s insistence.
“It’s the other side that is interested in keeping the ties quiet. With us, usually, there is no problem, but we respect the other side’s wish when ties are developing, whether it’s with Saudi Arabia or with other Arab countries or other Muslim countries, and there is much more … (but) we keep it secret,” he explained.
Sharing intelligence not a surprising move, experts say
According to Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Steinitz’s statement comes as no surprise. He characterized the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia as a “budding courtship” and stated that it’s being especially pushed by the Israeli side.
“Given the mutual threat perceptions shared by Israel and Gulf Arab countries, it is unlikely that covert ties aren’t developing,” he added.
Steinitz’s statement comes after Israel Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot told Saudi media in an interview last week that Tel Aviv is willing to share its intelligence on Iran with Riyadh. Israel Radio reported in September that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman had secretly met with officials in Israel, and multiple other news outlets have said the same thing. In light of those reports, both of these recent interviews seem like an attempt to give more credibility to the alleged ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
By sharing intelligence, both countries could, in theory, double down on Iran, their biggest threat so far, and Hezbollah, a militant Shi’a Islamist party Israel has described as Iran’s “satellite” in Lebanon.
The recent failure by Israeli intelligence to predict and react to the resignation of Lebanese Vice President Saad Hariri also might be what sparked the majority Jewish state to publicly reach out to Saudi Arabia. With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressing tentative support for parts of the Saudi Peace Initiative, cooperation with Saudi Arabia in times of need might make the outcome to the Palestinian issue much more favorable for both countries.
Despite the lack of concrete evidence or any official statements given by the states, Netanyahu has been instilling the notion that Israel’s ties with neighboring Arab nations have drastically improved in the past few years. Hussain Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, however, warns that Israeli officials have a tendency to exaggerate such interactions in an attempt to “drive down the price they may have to pay to expand strategic relations and ties with Arab countries,” as quoted by Reuters.
According to the Times of Israel, Netanyahu stated in September that Israel’s cooperation with Arab nations exists “in various ways and different levels.” Despite the fact that an Israeli official has yet again failed to give any further details on the exact scope and intent of the collaboration, Netanyahu’s claims seem to hold water in light of recent events.
By collaborating with moderate Sunni states, namely, Saudi Arabia, Israel could gain increased support from the U.S. With a potentially devastating conflict with Iran looming, a coalition with another U.S. ally could intensify Israel’s defense and possibly increase its negotiating power when talks about resolving the Palestinian issue resume.