Prior to the Israeli elections, there were reports that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was prepared to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The meeting didn’t happen in March. While a covert meeting reportedly took place in November 2020, a public meeting has not. This is despite the rumors about a possible peace deal with Riyadh or other types of movement toward relations.
Saudi Arabia has proposed a peace initiative for Yemen after six years of war. The goal is to end a costly war in which Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have been increasingly targeting Saudi Arabia’s energy infrastructure. Riyadh’s initiative is also an attempt to call Tehran’s bluff, because if the Houthis continue to attack Saudi Arabia, the kingdom can show this as evidence to the US that the Houthis are terrorizing the Saudis.
The larger picture is that Israel and Saudi Arabia share concerns about Iran’s proxies and their threats, as well as their long-range missiles and drones. An article in Globes this week by INSS and Tel Aviv University expert Yoal Guzansky suggested that Israel support Saudi Arabia’s defense against various threats. This is a major symbol of how the Jewish state is openly talking about the kingdom and how important Riyadh is to Israel. A symbol of that importance could be a meeting between Netanyahu and MBS.
Prior to the elections, such a meeting could have been interpreted as a kind of public relations photo op. After the elections it could show support for stability in the region if Netanyahu is able to form a coalition. This would present an incentive for Netanyahu to form a stable government, rather than head towards yet more elections due to his apparent inability to shore up a coalition in recent years.
TO GIVE some perspective on this, MBS, as the Saudi crown prince is known, rose to power entirely during the Netanyahu era. Netanyahu is the face of Israel in Saudi Arabia. As the kingdom has shifted and as it became concerned about Washington’s Iran Deal in 2015, it shifted along with Israel because Israel was also concerned about the rise of Iran in the region.
Saudi Arabia also moved to crack down on extremists and to embrace economic reform. In many ways this dovetails with Israel’s own economic achievements and also Israel’s realization of the threat that groups like Hamas can pose. It should be recalled that when Hamas first emerged decades ago, it was not seen as the threat that it would later become.
Saudi Arabia has long offered Israel a peace deal with the region, one that was predicated on a Palestinian state. It’s not clear if it can shift the goal posts on this and embrace Israel more without some kind of movement on the Palestinian issue. Elections of course give Netanyahu yet another chance to shift his views on the Palestinians. He has reached out to Arab voters. Last year he ditched annexation and embraced the UAE.
But Netanyahu is the ultimate status quo politician. While he doesn’t want more conflicts with Hamas, he also doesn’t want a Palestinian state coming into being – and he can’t confront the far-right in Israel, which would be necessary for such movement on the Palestinian issue.
MBS appears to have risen to power willing to move on from many status quo issues in Saudi Arabia and to change the kingdom fundamentally. His support for the Abraham Accords was key. But Riyadh has faced increasing critique from Washington about its policies. This has left it more isolated in the West.
In some ways, this naturally moves it closer to Israel over shared concerns. Its overall trajectory is unclear, however: Will Riyadh be able to rebuild its image in the West or will it increasingly pivot to the East? Will it seek to return to influence in the region, regarding Syria or Lebanon and Iraq, or has that ship sailed?
Turkey, Qatar and Russia have recently been talking about the future of Syria. This appears to sideline Saudi Arabia’s role. It also left Israel out of discussions about key concerns over Syria. These are all key questions for Riyadh regarding how a meeting with Netanyahu after the elections – if the prime minister does form a government – might come to pass.
Saudi Arabia’s media has so far been relatively muted on Israel’s elections, taking a wait-and-see approach.