Winds of change
Saudi Arabia’s stance regarding Israel seems to be altering.
Is Saudi Arabia inching towards recognising Israel? This seems to be in the offing if one goes by recent developments in Riyadh and the declaration by the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman that Israel has the right to its own land alongside Palestine.
In an interview with the US-based The Atlantic magazine during his visit to America, the 32-year-old heir to the Saudi throne said: "I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations."
"Israel is a big economy compared to their size and it's growing economy, and of course there are a lot of interests we share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and countries like Egypt and Jordan," the de facto leader of the Kingdom said.
His remarks have generated excitement as more than a century since the Balfour Declaration, a leading member of the Saudi Royal family has talked about the rights of the Jews to a state in almost the same words as the British Foreign Minister's statement in 1917.
The Balfour Declaration was a public statement issued by the British government during World War I, announcing support for the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine, then an Ottoman region with a minority Jewish population –around 3-5 per cent in all.
Now Prince Mohammad seems to have put the land claims on an equal footing. In the interview, the Crown Prince also said he had no "religious objection" to Israelis living alongside Palestinians, as long as the main Muslim site in Jerusalem—the Al Aqsa mosque compound is protected.
"We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people," he said, adding "we don't have any objection against any other people."
The two countries have no formal diplomatic relations, but behind the scenes improvements in their ties have accelerated in recent years. Since 2002, Saudi Arabia has been the main sponsor of the Arab Peace initiative, which envisions a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Currently, Israel has diplomatic ties with only two West Asian countries---Egypt and Jordan.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict had long proved to be an obstacle to a full rapprochement as Saudi Arabia voiced support for Palestinians' right to sovereignty. The Kingdom's stance towards Israel seems to be changing with the rise of Prince Mohammad who is seeking to overhaul the Kingdom's place in the world by making Saudi economy less dependent on oil.
Both Saudi Arabia and Israel see Iran as their biggest outside threat and a common enemy, and the United States as their key ally. Increased tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran has fuelled speculation that shared interests may push Riyadh and Tel Aviv to work together against Teheran.
Also, recent developments in Riyadh indicated that ties between the two countries are warming up. Last month, Saudi Arabia granted permission to India's national carrier Air India to use its airspace to operate a direct flight between New Delhi and Tel Aviv. The move ends decades-long ban by Saudi Arabia on the use of its airspace for flights to Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Saudi move creates "huge" potential for Israel with "significant" and "long-term implications."
"The significance is clear to everyone," he said, adding the implications, which he called "of the first degree," have economic and diplomatic implications as well an impact relating to tourism and technology.
Last November, an Israeli Cabinet member disclosed covert contacts with Saudi Arabia, a rare acknowledgement of long-speculated secret dealings that the Kingdom continues to deny.
There appears to be a divide in Saudi leadership over the Israel issue. Prince Mohammad's father King Salman, in a phone call to US President Donald Trump recently emphasised Palestinian rights. He reiterated "the Kingdom's steadfast position towards the Palestinian issue and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital," he was quoted as saying by the official Saudi Press Agency.
The Crown Prince has close ties with the US administration especially President Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner who has been assigned to try to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is widely believed that Prince Mohammad is coordinating to get the Arab world to help in resolve the issue.
Arab leaders have long discussed measures whereby ties with Israel would be normalised in exchange for a full withdrawal from territories it occupied in the 1967 war.
Saudi Arabia has been the main sponsor of the Arab peace initiative since 2002. The initiative states among other things a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in exchange for a general withdrawal from all territories including the Golan Heights, the Arab countries commit to sign a peace agreement with Israel and normalise relations with it.
Prince Mohammad has not disclosed his cards completely but the developments indicate he is working for a settlement of the conflict. It also remains to be seen how Israel responds to any new initiative to resolve the issue.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988-995. The views expressed are strictly personal)