Saudi Arabia have no formal diplomatic relations. The Saudis do not even recognize Israel as a state. Still, there is evidence that ties between Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states and Israel are not only improving but, after developing in secret over many years, could evolve into a more explicit alliance as a result of their mutual distrust of Iran. Better relations among these neighbors could put the chaotic Middle East on a more positive course. They could also leave the Palestinians in the dust, a worrisome prospect.
A recent case in point was a visit to Jerusalem last month by a Saudi delegation, led by a retired major general, Anwar Eshki, that included talks with Dore Gold, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official. The meeting was notable because it was openly acknowledged. General Eshki and Mr. Gold reportedly began secret contacts in 2014; they went public last year by appearing together at an event in Washington.
Israel and the Sunni Arab states last fought a war in 1973. Now, after decades of hostility, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is seeking to engage his country’s former enemies. Meanwhile, since coming to power 18 months ago, King Salman of Saudi Arabia and his son Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have shown a surprising willingness to take foreign policy risks.
The Israelis and the Saudis have reasons to work together. They share antipathy toward Iran, the leading Shiite-majority country. Both are worried about regional instability. Both are upset with the United States over the Iranian nuclear deal and other policies, including those dealing with Syria. For some time, Israeli and Saudi officials have been cooperating covertly on security and intelligence matters.
As an international boycott movement is seeking to isolate Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, Mr. Netanyahu is determined to expand the number of countries that recognize his state and to capitalize on the economic potential of trade between it and the Arab states. He also has repaired relations with Turkey and has sought to strengthen ties with Africa.
Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem in July. Credit Uriel Sinai for The New York Times
It’s hard to tell sometimes whether and through whom the Saudi royal family is speaking, and some analysts do not view General Eshki as a serious interlocutor. But his visit to Jerusalem, which included a meeting with members of Parliament, suggested a new Saudi openness to testing how the public in both countries would react to overt contacts. Significantly, Saudi Arabia has also begun a media campaign in the kingdom, apparently to prepare its citizens for better relations with Israel.
In recent years, Israelis and Saudis have encountered each other often at academic and policy forums. In addition, Israel has established separate official channels of communication with Saudi Arabia, as well as with the United Arab Emirates, and these channels are considered “real and significant,” according to Daniel Levy, president of the U.S./Middle East Project.
Egypt has also been pursuing warmer ties with Israel. A week before the Saudi delegation arrived, Sameh Shoukry became the first foreign minister of Egypt to visit Israelin nine years. Although the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1979, the relationship never fulfilled its promise. However, ties have improved since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became Egypt’s president in 2014, enabling greater security cooperation against Hamas in Gaza and the militants battling Egyptian troops in the Sinai.
Where does this leave the Palestinians? Both the Saudi and Egyptian visits were ostensibly aimed at promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, who have relied on the Sunni Arab states to advance their interests. General Eshki, for instance, talked of reviving the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which promised Israel normalized relations with the Arab League countries as part of a deal to end the Palestinian conflict.
Unfortunately, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians show interest in serious peace talks. And there are reasons to doubt that the Palestinians are the Arab countries’ real focus. Mr. Netanyahu, in fact, has made clear his preference for improving relations with the Arab states first, saying Israel would then be in a stronger position to make peace with the Palestinians later on.
Of course, improved relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors do not preclude a Palestinian peace deal. The danger is that these countries will find more value in mending ties with each other and stop there, thus allowing Palestinian grievances, a source of regional tension for decades, to continue to fester.