There are signs — very much behind the scenes at the moment and denied by all concerned — that Saudi Arabia may be inching towards an historic accommodation with Israel.
The forces nudging the country’s rulers in this direction are economic. The plunge in oil prices has hit the kingdom hard. For the first time the word ‘austerity’ is being mentioned in official circles, ending a decade of profligate spending.
The country’s Public Service, long a repository for the idle sons of the middle class, has been told in no uncertain terms to get its act together; the Budget deficit for the year is approaching $100 million.
Then there is the war in Yemen— a massive drain on the country’s finances that seems to be producing nothing but condemnation from the international community — and Iran, which both Israel and Saudi Arabia see as a looming threat.
It is against this stark background that King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud may be turning his attention to the Middle-East’s long running problem of how to deal with the Jewish State.
This issue has been tentatively explored before. I remember an off-the-record interview with a retired Saudi general who said the billions of dollars that had been pumped into support for the Palestinian cause over decades had produced absolutely nothing.
“The Israeli State is stronger than ever. It’s not going away and we can’t shift it. That money would have been better spent raising the standard of living in the Arab world,” the military officer said.
As early as 2001, a Saudi initiative offered peace and recognition for Israel if it withdrew to its 1967 boundaries. Nothing happened then, but after 15 years of continued frustration it is possible that plan is being dusted off.
In a recent interview, Director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, Simon Henderson mentioned the activities of Prince Turki al-Faisal, a son of the late King Faisal and prominent in international diplomatic circles.
“He was a guest and participated in a forum discussion with [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu’s former National Security Adviser, Yaakov Amidror,” Henderson said.
“Also earlier this year at the Munich Security Conference he was photographed shaking hands with Moshe Yaalon, who was then Israeli Defence Minister — so something is happening.”
These developments have to be seen in context with the internal situation in Israel where there is a growing feeling that the Palestinians are not going to be dissuaded from their desire for a separate State.
The retired chief of the country’s Intelligence Agency, Mossad, Tamir Pardo, caused a sensation when he said there was no military threat to Israel — a comment in direct contrast to Netanyahu’s policy that the country is surrounded by dangerous enemies and deadly threats and Israel must continue to be on a state of high alert and spend billions on its defence forces as the price for its very existence.
So war weariness and simple economics may be pushing both sides in this long-running conflict into an accommodation. Without the Saudi bankroll the Palestinian campaign against Israel would be reduced to rock-throwing youths. The big question is how this would play out in other parts of the Middle East.
It would really be a question of whether the idea of peace could be sold as better for the Palestinians and better for the Arab world – and how much Israel would be prepared to contribute to that idea.