When Noam Shuster-Eliassi, a 32-year-old Israeli comedian, made a joke in fluent Arabic about wanting to marry Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, she never imagined how hard her punchline would hit home. Her joke has since become a viral hit on Arab social media and sparked a debate about the Gulf state’s increasingly warm ties to Jerusalem.
The joke, which was featured on Shuster-Eliassi’s weekly satirical spot in i24 News Arabic, alluded to Israel’s once-secret relations with Saudi Arabia inching toward the public arena.
QUOTE OF FULL SEGMENT:
Noam: I’m 32 now and I’m still not married.
Host: And your Persian grandmother is pressuring you?
Noam: Yes, of course. My aunts and grandmother are driving me crazy asking, "When are you going to get married already?” My grandmother told me, "Noam, now that you’re 32, you can marry anyone – Jewish, not Jewish, I don’t care." But I don’t want to just marry anyone, I want to aim higher. And when I do – who is it that I see? They say Bashar Assad is tall – but he’s not right for me. MBS! MBS is tall! And I know that ties are warming up between Israel and Saudi. And so I want to address MBS directly: I tried starting a party named ‘Naama’ so we can work together for peace in the Middle East. I know you don’t want to be meddling in Israeli politics but please, if you could support the ‘Naama’ party or just me, that would be really really great.
This proved to be a hot-button topic and the clip was featured in Egyptian, Qatari and Lebanese media, as well as BBC Arabic.
Saudi Arabia does not officially recognise Israel. It has maintained for years that normalizing relations hinges on an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians – although MBS may be changing that.
Israel and many Gulf states share a common foe in Iran. Just a day after Shuster-Eliassi made her joke, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the Warsaw conference on the Middle East along with a number of Arab leaders. In a rare indication of the warming ties, his office even leaked a video of Netanyahu discussing Iran with a number of senior Gulf diplomats.
Netanyahu later told reporters that statements by Arab leaders at the conference have laid the groundwork for the Arab public to accept normalization of ties with Israel.
Not everyone understood Shuster-Eliassi’s joke. While some Arab comedians used it as a way to criticize Gulf states for their ties with Israel, others have thought the proposal was real and that the comedian was an Israeli politician.
'Something one of them said'
The Netanyahu government has reported semi-official Israel-Saudi contacts – never confirmed, and sometimes denied by Riyadh – since 2014.
Netanyahu made a surprise visit to Oman a few weeks ago, whose foreign minister then told Gulf neighbors that Israel should be accepted in the region. Other Israeli delegates then visited the United Arab Emirates.
The Trump administration, which has brought U.S. policy sharply in line with Israel’s, has also sought closer relations with Saudi Arabia.
Reuters contributed to this report
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