Israeli sources were skeptical Sunday of a report in the Sunday Times that Saudi Arabia and Israel are in talks to establish economic ties, saying Riyadh has little interest at the moment in taking its ties with Israel out into the open.
Senior Israeli officials, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down through ministers, such as Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, have broadly hinted over more than a year that Israel and the Saudis are cooperating on security issues having to do with their common threats: Iran and radical Islamic terrorism.
But beyond mentioning that these ties exist, no one has provided much detail.
The Sunday Times, quoting Arab and American sources, said the economic ties would “start small,” allowing Israeli business people to operate in the Gulf, and letting EL Al fly over Saudi airspace.
These ideas, however, have been mentioned in the past as part of US President Donald Trump’s effort to push the diplomatic process forward by urging Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world – primarily Saudi Arabia – to take steps to improve the overall atmosphere and build confidence.
Under this framework, the US is pressing Israel to “moderate” settlement construction, and enable more Palestinian development in Area C; is pushing the Palestinian Authority to end payments to terrorists and their families and halt incitement; and it is urging Saudi Arabia to lift its ban on the overflight of Israeli planes headed eastward.
The Foreign Ministry had no comment on the Sunday Times report.
According to the paper, sources close to Saudi Arabia “dismissed the idea of improved relations as wishful thinking on behalf of a White House keen to demonstrate immediate results from President Trump’s recent visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Mr. Trump has boasted that his administration can produce a settlement in the Middle East that has eluded all of his predecessors.”
Israeli sources, meanwhile, are doubtful that the Saudi Arabia would come out into the open with ties at this time. This is something, the sources maintained, that would leave them vulnerable to sharp criticism from Iran, their arch rival, as well as from the Saudi “street,” which remains ardently anti-Israel.
If the Saudis are receiving what they need from Israel in terms of security cooperation, and even business ties, under the table, the sources noted, what benefit is to be gained by going public with it.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, are adamantly opposed to any sign of normalization before Israel reaches an agreement with them, saying that normalization of ties should come as a result to an Israeli-Palestinian accord, not before it.
Joshua Teitelbaum, a Saudi specialist at Bar-Ilan University’s Besa Center, termed the report “premature.”
“Israel has an interest to float this kind of thing,” Teitelbaum said.
“But I think it’s still premature.
Saudi Arabia gets the benefit of cooperation with Israel at a pretty low price without having to give Israel too much. It’s not clear if Israel is willing to pay the price in Palestinian coin for a serious development to occur to bring the clandestine out in the open. I really don’t see Israeli businesses opening up unless there is something the Saudis can say ‘look what we’ve got,’ for example Israel is going to stop building in area C.
The Saudis are going to need a bigger concession, and that makes it difficult for Netanyahu because he is always challenged from the right.”