Saudi's Balancing Act: Relations with Israel and Arab Public Opinion

Published November 22nd, 2017 - 03:26 GMT
Saudis online slammed Ben Tzion's visit to Medina as reflective of an “unprecedented official tendency towards rapprochement with the Zionist entity.” (Twitter/Raf Sanchez)
Saudis online slammed Ben Tzion's visit to Medina as reflective of an “unprecedented official tendency towards rapprochement with the Zionist entity.” (Twitter/Raf Sanchez)
  • Riyadh may be testing the waters of Saudi and Arab opinion for public relations with Israel, some have suggested
  • On Monday, Saudis reacted angrily to images of a Jewish Israeli in the Prophet's mosque, Medina
  • The same day, Saudi's foreign minister said there were no relations between the pair
  • Israeli officials hae strongly hinted to the contrary saying they are happy to share intelligence


Saudi Arabia seems to be caught in a balancing act over relations with Israel.

“There are no relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel,” Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir insisted on Monday, rejecting multiple hints to the contrary from Tel Aviv.

Just last Thursday, however, the head of the IDF told a Saudi-owned site Elaph with close links to the royal family that Israel was prepared to shared intelligence with Riyadh to counter Iran.

Gadi Eisenkot did not directly respond when asked if information had already been exchanged.

While there are no official diplomatic ties between the two nations, they share a deep animosity with Iran and it is suggested that there have long been talks behind the scenes.

On curbing the Iranian threat, Eisenkot said: “In this matter there is complete agreement between us and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has never been our enemy.”

Cooperation with Israel against Tehran might be advantageous to Saudi, but it certainly does not seem to be a popular option at home.

On Monday, the same day Jubeir made his comments, Saudis were responding with anger on Twitter after images circulated of a Jewish Israeli man visiting holy sites in Medina.

Blogger Ben Tzion has been touring holy sites in the Muslim world, according to The Times of Israel, for which he has contributed previously.

In particular, a video posted to Instagram of Tzion inside the Prophet’s Mosque and including Hebrew lettering on a bag containing passages of holy Jewish scripture, proved controversial.

In a tweet that gained over 500 likes, @TurkiShalhoub warned that this was reflective of an “unprecedented official tendency towards rapprochement with the Zionist entity.”

@hureyaksa suggested this was typical of the “moderate Islam promoted by Mohammed bin Salman.” “The next thing will be worse,” the tweet claimed.

It is not clear if the Saudi authorities okayed the visit of an Israeli Jewish man to Medina - Tzion also has Russian nationality. Non-Muslims are not officially allowed to visit the Muslim holy sites.

The timing is unlikely to be an accident, and much has been read in the past into what Riyadh has allowed to take place, assumed to reflect its tacit approval.

In June, John R. Bradley observed in The Spectator that there had been no official backlash to Israeli Channel 2’s interview that month with a Saudi political analyst in Jeddah. This suggested, he said, implicit Saudi assent as part of its focus on countering the Iranian, not Israeli, enemy.

Similar comments were made after U.S. President Donald Trump took what may have been the very first direct flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv during his May visit to the region.



Of Eisenkot’s recent remarks, Israeli lawmaker Anat Berko claimed that Saudi approval for the interview was “proof” that Riyadh is ready to “come out of the closet” regarding links to Tel Aviv.

That may be putting it a bit strongly. In fact, rather than making ties public, Saudi Arabia may be attempting to test the water.

Brandon Friedman, a specialist on Saudi Arabia at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center, told Jpost that “they want to assess how much room to maneuver they have with their own people and in the Arab world, to know what’s the backlash.”

That might explain why Tzion’s Medina visit was allowed - or at least not loudly condemned by the authorities. And why simultaneously Jubeir is still keenly denying ties publicly, despite the steady stream of indications that relations are warming.

If Saudi Arabia wants to keep Arab public opinion on side while embracing Israel, observers say, then they will need to present themselves as promoting justice for Palestinians.

Certainly, the Saudi foreign minister was keen to stress Monday that “Arab nations’ position has always supported the Palestinian brothers.”

Jubeir insisted that normalization would only come through the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which was based on territorial concessions from Israel and Palestinian refugee rights.

When asked about relations with Riyadh Sunday, meanwhile, the Israeli Energy Minister hinted that the only thing stopping them going public was the Saudi side.

“We have ties, some of them secret, with many Arab and Muslim states,” Yuval Steinitz told Israel’s Army Radio. “Usually the one who wants those ties to be discreet is the other side.”

Israel does not appear to share the reticence. In September Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the “best ever” relations with the Arab world, despite them being kept out of the public eye for now.

Still, if responses to the June hashtag “Saudis Support Naturalization” are anything to go by then the only public opinion Saudi authorities will gauge from hinting at closer relations will be one that is almost entirely negative.

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