The supposed meeting yesterday between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salman is surrounded by fog. If the rumors were correct, that would be the first visit of an Israeli leader to Saudi Arabia. But for the time being, the meeting has not yet been officially confirmed by both sides. What would rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia mean for the region? And why is there being secretive about the visit?
According to Israeli media, Netanyahu secretly flew to the Saudi metropolis under construction Neom yesterday for a conversation with Bin Salman and the US Secretary of State Pompeo. But that is denied by the Saudi Foreign Minister. “I met Pompeo at the airport and went to the meeting with him. Only Saudi and American officials were present.”
According to Middle East correspondent Daisy Mohr, that might be a response for the stage. “Contact with Israel is extremely sensitive here, and for the general public this news is a major change. But it may also be that the countries simply agreed to keep the meeting secret.”
At a meeting of his Likud party Netanyahu was also asked about the meeting today, but, like Pompeo, he did not comment. The Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz did. He spoke of the “irresponsible leakage of the secret flight to Saudi Arabia”. Yoav Gallant, member of Netanyahus security cabinet, called it a meeting with great significance.
Mohr points out that there has been contact between the countries behind the scenes. Thats what Israel-correspondent Ties Brock sees. “Traditionally, the ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia have been bad, but in recent years you have seen that there is more contact below the radar. Israeli flights over Saudi Arabia have also been allowed for several months.
The fact that Israel reached a diplomatic agreement with Gulf states Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates earlier this year is also an important signal. “I do not think that those deals would have come if Saudi Arabia had been against. But Saudi Arabia would be the top prize for Israel compared to those countries.”
Saudi Arabia had little criticism of that agreement, says Mohr. “There has been speculation for some time when Saudi Arabia will be the next Arab country to strengthen ties with Israel. But if that happens, it will be a small landslide in the region.”
Possibly denying the meeting for Saudi Arabia is a way to get the people used to the idea. “The anti-Israel sentiments are strong among the Saudi population. Maybe Riyadh wants to slowly prepare the population in this way.”
Mohr sees more signs of that. “During Ramadan there are daily soap operas on television in the country. This year suddenly came up with a Jewish community that has been living in the golf region for a long time. I havent seen anything like that before.”
As an ally of the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia has always avoided contact with Israel. “As in the other Gulf states, it will be sold to the Palestinians with the message that better relations with Israel will ultimately be good for the peace process,” says Mohr. “But in the Palestinian camp will again be spoken of a dagger sting in the back.”
“ The Palestinians are frustrated,” says Brock. “They saw three Arab countries making a deal with Israel and now possibly Saudi Arabia. While the peace process is completely in its hole and a state of its own seems to be getting further away.”
Common Enemy: Iran
Mohr and Brock point out the same main reason for the rapprochement: the common enemy Iran. “The leaders of the Arab countries clearly consider Iran to be a greater threat than Israel,” says Brock. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend, they presumably think.”
“ There is also still a war going on in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran support the fighting parties,” says Mohr. “Saudi Arabia is the Sunni stronghold in the region, Iran the Shiite.”
Yesterday, Netanyahu stressed that there was no way back to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, and the deal concluded under President Obama was withdrawn by his successor Trump. With Joe Biden, Obamas former vice president, becoming the new president, a new situation is emerging.
“ The meeting can therefore be interpreted as a signal to Biden: dont go back to the negotiating table for the atomic agreement,” says Brock. “Perhaps the countries are in a more hurry now because Biden has been elected,” says Mohr. “Its no secret that the Saudis would have preferred Trump to be re-elected. The eyes are now on Trumps last months. Is he going to do anything in Iran?There is therefore speculation in the Arab media that the meeting was mainly about Iran.”