An Israeli-Saudi Peace Agreement? Not Anytime Soon

Reports of Israeli involvement in Egypt's handover of two Red Sea islands to the Saudis caused uproar in the Arab world, but don't hold your breath over the prospect of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Tiran (foreground) and Sanafir (background) islands in the Straits of Tiran between Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia as seen from an airplane.
Tiran (foreground) and Sanafir (background) islands in the Straits of Tiran between Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia as seen from an airplane.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A Saudi tweeter who goes by the name Mutahidd says his country is acquiring drones from Israel via South Africa. Drones are sent to South Africa, where they are dismantled and shipped to a facility in Saudi Arabia set up for this purpose. They’re reassembled as if they were made locally.

Mutahidd has another scoop. When Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed Bin Salman visited Jordan this past week, he met with Israeli officials to coordinate positions, Mutahidd says. And the planned construction of a bridge linking Saudi Arabia and Egypt is said to be a prelude to the launching of diplomatic relations between the Saudi kingdom and the Zionist state.

With his tweets, Mutahidd usually targets the Saudi royal house and informs his readers of any corruption. Even if his tweets aren’t accurate, they’ve attracted thousands of followers.

But support for ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia isn’t only based on Mutahidd’s tweets. Egyptian media pieces critical of Egypt’s transfer to the Saudis of two islands off Sinai describe the pact as Saudi assent to the Camp David Accords that led to diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel. It’s even dubbed part of an Israeli-American-Saudi plot to expand Israel’s influence in the Mideast.

According to the Egyptian media, Israel’s consent to the transfer of the islands, which in the Straits of Tiran control shipping from Eilat via the Red Sea, came only after Egypt and Saudi Arabia agreed that Israel would be informed of every stage in the bridge’s construction. It would also take part in its administration. It’s not clear what “administration” means, but it’s enough to mention Israeli involvement and Israeli confirmation of coordination with Egypt to spark indignation in Egypt.

Erdogan and Saudi's King Salman at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Istanbul Summit, Turkey April 14, 2016.Credit: Reuters / Murad Sezer

To counter the critics, Cairo took the unusual step of releasing documents showing that the islands were owned by the Saudis and leased to Egypt in 1950. The documents contain no hint that Riyadh committed to adhere to the Camp David Accords to obtain Israel’s consent.

Saudi Arabia sufficed with a statement, but the statement was apparently preceded by contacts between the Saudis and Israelis. It’s of course premature to hold your breath waiting for diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh, but there’s no doubt the transfer of the islands to the Saudis, the kingdom’s implicit recognition of the Camp David Accords and its taking over the Red Sea’s entrance with Israel’s consent reflect a development much more important than “returning” islands.

The development also raises the question who sets the kingdom’s foreign policy. Supposedly 80-year-old King Salman has the last word, but he’s ill and apparently suffers from dementia. People say he loses his train of thought in the middle of a conversation, and Arab reporters say his speeches are drafted with a limited vocabulary. His short-term memory is said to be faulty and in public appearances he repeats the same words and sentences over and over.

Nevertheless, he still makes decisions like the start of the war in Yemen and his strategy to build a Sunni Muslim coalition to counter Shi’ite Iran. But for those decisions, the king relies heavily on the opinion of his son, Defense Minister Mohammed Bin Salman, who he has named deputy crown price. That may give him junior status to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Naif, but this arrangement is expected to be changed soon.

The real battle in the royal court is for succession, which will require 31-year-old Mohammed and 58-year-old Bin Naif to curry the favor of the Allegiance Council. It consists of 34 royal family members and has the authority to designate the king’s successor upon his death.

Until then, Salman has entrusted his son with the major international issues. Mohammed has visited Moscow twice. He has built ties with Washington, which views him as the heir apparent. In recent days he was photographed embracing Jordanian King Abdullah as if they were brothers. Mohammed is also the one forging the Sunni Muslim alliance against Iran.

But even for this wealthy kingdom, which has kept Egypt’s head above water and has kept non-Arab Turkey more closely tied to the Arab Middle East, not everything has gone to plan. For example, King Salman visited Egypt and Turkey this month in a trip designed in part to reconcile Egypt and Turkey to complete the Sunni coalition. But despite a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, results weren’t forthcoming.

The true test was due Friday at a meeting in Istanbul of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. King Salman had hoped Egypt would be represented by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, and Erdogan would apologize for his criticism of Sissi over two years.

But Sissi demands more than an apology. He insists that Erdogan expel Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood officials who found sanctuary in Turkey after Sissi overthrew Egypt’s Brotherhood-linked regime. Sissi wants Erdogan to end his support for the movement, which the Egyptian regime considers a terror group. Erdogan demands that death sentences for Brotherhood leaders in Egypt be withdrawn and that deposed President Mohammed Morsi be freed from jail.

Despite Saudi pressure, these are impossible conditions for Egypt and Turkey. In the end, Sissi didn’t attend the conference and Egypt was represented by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who read from Sissi’s speech and left for Cairo without speaking to Erdogan.

King Salman had a 500-person entourage in Istanbul, requiring the Turks to provide a fleet of cars. But they’ll be returning home without a diplomatic breakthrough. Salman will have to accept that economic aid, however large, doesn’t ensure that the recipients will comply diplomatically. What’s true for Washington in its relations with Israel is true between the Saudis and Egyptians.

But the failure of this process doesn’t transform Turkey or Egypt into adversaries of Saudi Arabia. Each has interests that require close ties with the Saudis, and the Saudis need these ties. But each also has political principles that impede broad strategic alliances.

Thus many factions in Egypt are dissatisfied with Egypt’s mortgaging of its economy to Saudi Arabia. They fear the move will fail to encourage Cairo to implement a sound economic policy. But the Turks are satisfied with their new alliance with Saudi Arabia, which will include hefty investments in Turkey.

Still, Turkey, which hosts Saudi planes at Incirlik, doesn’t want to lose its economic ties with Iran and hopes to triple trade with the Iranians to more than $30 billion. Saudi Arabia can’t dictate to Turkey who its allies will be, just as it can’t dictate Egyptian reconciliation with Turkey or more Egyptian participation in the Yemen war. This tangle also holds a lesson for Israel: Iran has replaced it as the strategic threat to the Arab states.

But that doesn’t mean Iran’s enemies are automatically Israel’s friends. Saudi Arabia isn’t near establishing ties with Israel, and Egypt isn’t near normalizing ties with Israel despite tensions between Cairo and Ankara. Israel is still presumed an enemy of Arab countries.

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