The media coverage of the 2016 election, and now the transition, has overshadowed a very positive development in the Middle East in last year.
The Iran Deal has so endangered the security of both Israel and Saudi Arabia that both governments are becoming more open about improving ties. For example, in 2015, Dore Gold, an Israeli diplomat and longtime advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu, met publicly with retired Saudi General Anwar Eshki, who is an advisor to the royal family.
They met at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. They publicly discussed their common concerns, including Iran’s behavior in the Middle East. In July 2016, General Eshki visited Israel. While many Arabs were opposed to this visit, the Saudi delegation made it clear that there would be no peace between Israel and the Arab States until after an Israeli-Palestinian agreement was concluded.
Other prominent Saudis have publicly met with Israelis and made the same point. In 2014, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief for over 20 years, shared a public stage with the former head of Israel’s Military Intelligence (Aman), retired Israeli Air Force Major General Amos Yadlin. Columnist David Ignatius moderated their discussion. Ignatius wrote in his column that in many Muslim countries “the very idea of such an open discussion is heresy.”
In 2016, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal met in public with IDF Major General Yaakov Amidror (retired), who was national security advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu. While they disagreed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fact that they met spoke volumes.
As late as June 2009, Saudi King Abdullah had told President Obama that he “would be the last to make peace with Israel.” According to Dennis Ross, President Obama was stunned by that reaction after he deliberately tried to distance the United States from Israel. Obama expected this distancing would pay off in the Arab and Muslim world. It didn’t.
Frankly, my reaction was opposite. The idea that a Saudi leader could envision being the “last” Arab leader to make peace with Israel is better than nothing. There was a time when Israelis could never have imagined a Saudi leader going so far. The idea that the Saudis are meeting with the Israelis tells me that peace will eventually happen.
Beyond the Iranian threat, I am optimistic that better relations can be achieved because the Saudis know that their country faces enormous economic challenges. There are already hundreds of Jews working in Saudi Arabia on financial, infrastructure, and energy projects.
Anwar Sadat refused to wait for a Palestinian State until he got the Sinai back. Saudi Arabia cannot afford to wait either. The Israelis cannot ignore the Palestinian issue, and should make a deal eventually anyway.
Better relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia could put pressure on the Palestinians to be more reasonable and accept a two-state solution, which means that Palestinian refugees could only return to a Palestinian state and not Israel.
One reason for likely better relations is that Israel is uniquely positioned to help Saudi Arabia with its water problems. Israel is leading the world in drip irrigation, water treatment, and desalination.
Today, 86 percent of Israel’s sewage water (from toilets, showers, and factories) is renewed. Spain is the second most efficient country in the world in renewing sewage water at only 19 percent.
The Saudis cannot ignore their water problems indefinitely. One reason the Syrian Civil War began in March 2011 was that, from 2006 to 2011, much of Syria experienced its worst drought in centuries. What happened to Syria could happen to Saudi Arabia. People can tolerate dictatorships, but they cannot live without water and they will not tolerate a government that is depriving them of water.
In April 2016, Israel approved of Egypt returning the islands of Sanafir and Tiran to the Saudis. Saudi Arabia agreed to abide by the terms of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. This means that the Saudis won’t try to close the Straits of Tiran. This shows us that the Israelis and Saudis are privately beginning to trust each other on small agreements.
Trust can grow to bring about a bigger agreement. If Saudi Arabia eventually became the third Arab country to recognize Israel, it could lead the region much closer to peace.
From 1948 to 1973, Saudi Arabia was only willing to fight Israel to the last Egyptian. Later, it was willing to fight Israel to the last Palestinian. There is reason to believe that today the Saudis are willing to fight Iran, and their water problems, to the last Israeli. In the Middle East, that’s progress.