Saudi King Plays Peacemaker, Patron and Policeman in Sweep Through Mideast

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Saudi Arabian King Salman being greeted upon arrival in Egypt by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, on April 7, 2016.
King Salman, left, being greeted by President al-Sissi last week. The latter can’t stand the romance developing between Riyadh and Ankara. Credit: Reuter

Turkey's foreign ministry, not Israel's, has been the one that has undertaken the job of publicizing the resumption of relations between Ankara and Jerusalem.

Top Israeli officials, including the president and prime minister, seem to confine their involvement to warm exchanges with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or react to the fact that the latter offered condolences after the attack last month in which Israelis were killed in Istanbul.

But for their part, Turkish spokesmen, including Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, seem not to spare the public any information. Last week they reported significant progress in the bilateral negotiations, and noted that the next round of talks, scheduled to take place “very soon,” will probably result in an agreement.

How soon is very soon? A Turkish diplomatic source told Haaretz that an announcement will probably follow Saudi Arabia's King Salman’s two-day visit to Turkey, due to start Monday.

“You have to let every party have its own space,” the source explained. Moreover, one has to make sure the public does not get the impression that the Saudi king is the one who initiated the Israeli-Turkish reconciliation – though that would have been quite a cause for celebration.

Imagine, he said, Saudi Arabia claiming credit for bringing about peace, and the king announcing that he’s winding up his tour of the region with a visit to Jerusalem. Well, that fantasy isn’t about to come true.

Salman began his political tour last week in Cairo, where he was warmly received by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. Even before the monarch arrived, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Cairo was tweeting that the king was bringing a wonderful surprise with him for Egypt, whose economy is in dire need of some $3 billion: a half-billion-dollar loan for investment in the Sinai, a donation to be used for building a university named after the king in the Sinai, and an undertaking to supply Egypt’s energy needs for five years, by means of a loan bearing an interest of 2 percent.

Sissi knows the king won’t be settling for a 21-gun salute in exchange for the shipment of fertilizer that he brought with him. Saudi Arabia is worried about the coolness Egypt has demonstrated regarding the moves to topple Syria's Bashar Assad. Moreover, Sissi’s attitude toward Iran is far from clear, and Saudi Arabia has been disappointed by the modest Egyptian contribution to the war in Yemen.

Sissi also has reservations about Saudi policy. Mainly, he can’t stand the romance developing in the last year between Riyadh and Ankara, which has become an ally and a beneficiary of Saudi investments.

The Egyptian president would like King Salman to demand that Erdogan apologize for the insults that the Turkish president has heaped on him during the last two years. He would like Erdogan to stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and stop meddling in Egypt’s affairs. But instead of that, the king comes to Cairo and spells out to Sissi that the Muslim Brotherhood is his partner in the fight against the Houthis in Yemen; that adding the Hamas to the Arab coalition is crucial to constraining Iran’s influence, and that Turkey is an ally with which Egypt has to make peace.

The five-day visit by Salman in Cairo afforded enough time for arm-twisting. During the visit, the Egyptian media fell all over themselves to laud the relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and to report on the king's meetings, even with the leaders of the Coptic church. These are the same media outlets that a year ago were reporting on a possible cooling in Saudi policy toward Egypt, and were expressing concern that Salman would deviate from the Egyptian policy of his predecessor, King Abdullah.

Not only is Egypt awaiting the ramifications of Salman’s visit. Ankara is also waiting to see if the king has a reconciliation plan in his pocket that would bring Turkey back to the Egyptian market after more than a year of dissociation.

“If you can make peace with Israel, you can make peace with Egypt,” the king could well say to Erdogan.

According to the Turkish diplomatic source, the king also asked Sissi how it was that he cooperates with Israel while breaking off relations with a Muslim country.

The collaboration between Israel and Egypt is what gave Sissi the “right” to inquire whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to “betray” Egypt and renew a possible embrace, with Erdogan, of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Jerusalem has promised to keep Cairo in the loop. The problem is that any such agreement could place Egypt in an embarrassing position, as it could remain the only country that continues to impose an embargo on the Gaza Strip. Hence, also, the tension among Hamas leaders awaiting the results of Salman’s visit to Ankara.

The thing is that while reconciliation between Israel and Turkey would ensure that goods and people can make their way through Israel's borders, peace between Ankara and Cairo could help lift the barrier at the Rafah crossing. For that to happen, Hamas will have to eschew the Muslim Brotherhood, as their “brothers” in Jordan did in February. That is a fundamental Egyptian condition, which gives Hamas a choice: to be awarded Saudi financing and continue to survive, or to feel the noose tighten around its necks.

Now it’s Erdogan’s turn to move his chess pieces.