Relations between Israel and the Saudis might be thawing

Only 18% of Saudis believe Israel to be the country’s greatest enemy.
Only 18% of Saudis believe Israel to be the country’s greatest enemy.
Image: AP Photo/Amr Nabil
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Two new developments may suggest an opening in relations between Israel and the Gulf states.

The first is a new survey of public opinion in Saudi Arabia, conducted by telephone—from Israel, by students at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Result:

The poll found that 53% of Saudis named Iran as their main adversary, while 22% said it is the Islamic State group and only 18% said Israel… A whopping 85% also support the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for peace with Israel in return for a full Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders.

These results should not exaggerated: though only 18% may consider Israel  their country’s main adversary, a far higher number may hate Israel and Jews. Nevertheless, to support the Arab Peace Initiative, launched by the late King Abdullah in 2002, is to acknowledge that peace with the Jewish state is imaginable—including with normal diplomatic relations.

The second development is a session I chaired at the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday, June 4. Two speakers shared the podium: major general Anwar Eshki of Saudi Arabia, and ambassador Dore Gold of Israel. The two men revealed that they had been in discussion for a year secretly, and had now decided to go public about their talks. Their speeches focused on the same issue: the danger to both their countries posed by Iran.

The session received a good deal of publicity (see The New York Times, for example), and rightly so. It’s true that neither man is a government official, although ambassador Gold will be one next week: he will become director general of Israel’s foreign ministry. But both men have long public careers and neither would have participated in their discussions and then made them public without a nod from their governments.

Again, let’s avoid exaggeration—but let’s also acknowledge that this is a rare event and a positive development. Iran gets most of the credit, because alarm about Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its hegemonic activities in the Middle East have spread widely in the Middle East. But some credit must be shared by the ayatollahs with president Obama, whose refusal to confront Iran has moved Saudis, Israelis, and others in the region to think about where they might find new friends.

There’s no Saudi-Israeli alliance or friendship today, nor will there be one tomorrow. But a wise American policy would seek quietly to explore and to expand these first seedlings of contact. I doubt that the Obama administration can do that, because its failings are in no small part what brings Israelis and Arab states to talk in the first place. Our next president, however, should make it a priority to see if the ice can be cracked a bit more.