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Flags of Israel and Saudi Arabia

The peace train between Israel and Saudi Arabia has long left the station, but it is traveling at Riyadh’s speed: two steps forward; one step back. It is still unclear when exactly it will reach its final destination.

The Saudis, true to their cautious approach, have been engaged in doublespeak. They have expressed interest and even hope that normalization will happen, seeing Israel as an anchor for regional stability, but at the same time, they have placed a whole laundry list of conditions that would make such a prospect hard to achieve, even impossible. At the same time, they have been embracing the members of the Middle Eastern axis of evil, starting with Syria and ending with Iran, with which it has recently reinstated diplomatic relations after a long hiatus.


But despite the lack of clarity, the question is not whether Israel-Saudi peace is feasible or even desired; that rubicon was already crossed by the Saudis a long time ago. The question is how long before this takes place.

The fact is that the relations between the two countries have been moving forward at a sluggish pace – but the momentum continues. Thus, for example, the Saudis have allowed Israeli airlines overflight rights and will soon allow direct flights for pilgrims who seek to carry out the Hajj in Mecca. As important, is the fact that the dialogue and cooperation on security matters continue on a path that is separate from the wobbly diplomatic one.

Yes, the hope for a quick breakthrough in relations has faded, and instead of an Israeli embassy in Riyadh, an Iranian one was inaugurated. Having said that, as far as the Saudis are concerned, there is no contradiction: For them, renewing ties with Iran should not come at the expense of having ties with Israel. In fact, they believe it might actually help this effort.

The Saudis continue to view Iran as an existential threat and have no trust in it. But they prefer to conduct this rivalry in a situation in which they have diplomatic relations rather than through a head-on collision for everyone to see. When Iran attacked oil containers and refineries in Saudi Arabia over the past several years, the Saudis were left to their own devices; Washington refused to reach out with help. Riyadh, it seems, doesn’t want to see a situation where it is dragged into a conflagration with Iran all by itself.

Just just like the UAE, which has friendly relations with Bashar Assad and Iran even as they maintain diplomatic ties with Israel, so too does Saudi Arabia see no contradiction. We must keep in mind that in the Middle East, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The Saudis expect something in return, and the problem is that the US is the one who will have to pay the consideration, or at least part of it. Washington has not shown any enthusiasm to do so, and it has continued to be critical of the Saudi regime because of human rights violations and is not keen on providing Saudi Arabia with advanced weaponry or even allowing the Saudi nuclear program to move forward.

The fact that Israel is consumed by political turbulence has not helped. But we must not give up on Saudi Arabia. This is a critical linchpin, and perhaps the most important Arab country these days. Israeli-Saudi peace will herald the end of the Israeli-Arab conflict and at the same time deal a deadly blow to the Palestinian efforts to fight Israel. The Saudis, just like the rest of the Arab world, have had enough of the Palestinians.

But Saudi Arabia has ambitions to lead the Islamic world and its rulers have to be attuned to the voices at home, popular opinion, and to what the clerical establishment, which has been a key part of the country’s foundation, has to say.

That’s why Riyadh has been extra wary of taking the leap. Apart from that, unlike Jordan or Morocco – which have had ties and even close security coordination with Israel for dozens of years – in the Saudi case, there is no history of relations that can serve as a foundation.

We should not be surprised to learn that a breakthrough between Riyadh and Jerusalem had been achieved after all, but it would be more reasonable to expect baby steps in this cautious move forward. Peace between the two countries will eventually come to being.


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Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University. This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.