Dialogue between Riyadh and Tel Aviv

23 m.   |  2020-05-25

I n 1948, the restoration of a Jewish statehood transformed the cards of the leading players in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. In the following decades, one of the key issues in Riyadh’s Middle East policy was the “fair” settlement of the Palestinian issue. Saudi Arabia was concerned about the appearance of a potential new opponent in the Middle East and possible dangers of redistribution of influence zones. The Palestinian issue was an important tool in curbing and countering Israeli growing influence in the region. On the other hand, possibly uniting the Arab world as well as the Islamic world.

Riyadh has high expectations to unite the Arab world especially during the Arab-Israeli wars, when the solidarity of the Arab people was mainly expressed around the Palestinian issue. The situation, however, changed in the 1990s and in the 2000s. Gradual development of Tehran’s growing influence and ambitions in the region became a priority in Saudi-Israeli relations. By targeting Iran, Saudi Arabia’s tough stance on Israel somewhat eased.

The American factor was also important for reducing problems between Riyadh and Tel Aviv, further to unite interests. Washington significantly built its strategy of a Middle East policy with both partners Saudi Arabia and Israel. Moreover, the escalation of US and Turkish relations in recent years further highlighted the role of both Riyadh and Tel Aviv in Washington’s regional policy.

During the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Saudi Arabia officially continued to maintain solidarity with the Arab world, which was perhaps a necessary for Saudi Arabia attempting to unite the Arab world and to present itself as a leading country for ths unity.

Saudi initiative for a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in 2002 was aimed at expanding Saudi Arabia’s influence in the Middle East. For Riyadh the peace plan was also an opportunity to resolve its conflicts with Israel and to launch an anti-Iranian campaign. Although initially, Tel Aviv’s response was generally viewed negatively, the parties gradually managed to set up a dialogue.

I n mid-2002, Israeli President Moshe Katsav invited Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to Jerusalem to discuss Riyadh’s initiative

[1], and in March 2007, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave a cautious welcome to the Arab peace initiative [2].

Later in 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu noted: “There are both positive and negative aspects to this initiative. This initiative is 13 years old and the situation in the Middle East has changed. But the general idea — to try and reach an understanding with leading Arab countries — is a good idea.” [3] Let’s recall that based on the peace plan Israel should have withdrawn before the 1967 Six-Day-War, after which the Arab states would recognize the state of Israel and would establish diplomatic relations [4].

As some experts note, Saudi Arabia’s initiative for a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and for dialogue between Israel and Arab countries is indirectly linked to the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks. As a result of which Washington declared North Korea, Iraq and Iran “the axis of evil” [5]. It is undeniable that the Middle East policy of the US is designed to counter Iranian nuclear ambitions with Israel and Saudi Arabia also focused on Iran and its expanding influence in the region.

Lebanon-Israel (Hizbullah-Israel) war in 2006 and the Hamas victory in parliamentary elections in 2006 increased Israel’s interest in Riyadh’s peaceful initiative, which was an opportunity to bring the interests of Tel Aviv and Riyadh together [6].

I n the mid-2000s, Arab, Iranian as well as Israeli media reported on secret meetings and talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia. According to those sources, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Secretary General of the National Security Council of Saudi Arabia Bandar Bin Sultan met in Amman in September 2006. It was reported that they met to discuss Iran’s nuclear ambitions and a proposed Saudi peace plan [7].

Bandar Bin Sultan Al Saud is a key figure in Riyadh’s Middle East policy. Between 1983-2005, he was the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States and in 2005, he was appointed Secretary General of the National Security Council and held the post until January 2015 [8]. Between 2012-2014, he had been the director general of General Intelligence Directorate of Saudi Arabia. From July 2014 to January 2001, Bandar bin Sultan was King Abdullah’s special envoy.

Bandar bin Sultan played an important role in resolving internal political disputes between Palestine and Lebanon. His mediation in the Washington-Tehran negotiations is quite significant. There is a lot of talk about the meetings between Bandar bin Sultan and Iran’s nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani. Experts appreciate Bandar bin Sultan’s role in establishing the Riyadh-Tel Aviv dialogue platform and intensifying contacts between the sides.

According to a former high-ranking defense and intelligence officer, Bandar bin Sultan has been in contact with Israel since the 1990s. During the 90s, one of the two key issues in negotiations with Tel Aviv was the neutralization of threats from Iraq and the potential Iranian threat. According to some sources, at the time of Oslo’s Palestine-Israeli negotiations, Bandar bin Sultan had a direct link to the Israeli embassy in Washington and held informal talks with Ambassador Itamar Rabinovitch [9].

In 2005, Saudi Arabia pledged to lift previously imposed ban on Israeli goods and services related to its membership to the World Trade Organization (WTO). According to the charter of the organization, a member-state of the organization cannot have a complete trade and economic barrier against another member-state of the structure. However, the ban on Saudi Arabia wasn’t completely lifted either. In July 2006, the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States stated that his country won’t stop prohibiting trade with Israel [10]. According to Washington, maintaining economic and trade barriers against Israel doesn’t comply with the WTO Charter.

B ack in November 2005, Saudi Arabia announced about its readiness to lift the economic ban on Israel, however, it continued to ban the import of goods manufactured in Israel as well as the goods imported from other countries which have Israeli production components [11]. Easing of Saudi Arabia’s trade and economic ban on Israel had a positive effect on the formation of a dialogue between the sides.   

In recent years, there have been frequent reports of contact between the Sunni Arab regimes and the Israeli Government. Significant portion of information is related to the supply capabilities of Israeli modern weapons. In 2011, there was news that Israel had approved a deal with Germany to sell 200 Leopard (2A7+) tanks to Saudi Arabia [12].

According to German Spiegel news magazine, Berlin intended to sell modern tanks to Saudi Arabia [13]. It should be noted that in the 1980's, the German Government banned the country’s domestic military-industrial companies from supplying tanks to Riyadh [14]. Spiegel reported:” In recent decades, the German Government has rejected Saudi Arabia’s intent to purchase Leopard tanks fearing that the deal could threaten Israel’s security, but Israeli high-tech system doesn’t see any threat in the deal anymore” [15].  

Between 2010-2016, Germany provided Saudi Arabia with weapons and military equipment worth $2․9 bil. [16]. In October 2018, however, Germany temporarily suspended arms sales due to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and later the arms embargo was extended until September 2019 due to hostilities with Yemen.

In May 2015, The Times of Israel newspaper published an article that mentioned Tel Aviv intent to provide Saudi Arabia with an Iron Dome air defense system to neutralize missiles fired by Yemeni Houthis [17]. According to the source the Saudi side, however, refused. Tehran provides various assistance to Houthis in the mediated war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However it is unlikely that in the current context of Riyadh-Tel Aviv relations, Israel would agree to provide Riyadh with an Iron Dome air defense system.

In 2016, Riyadh envisaged to establish a UAV production plant in cooperation with South Africa (AUA), the aim of which, according to the source, the Saudi side wanted to buy Israeli-made ATS through South Africa. This information was provided by a well-known Saudi military expert known as Mujtahid, who early in the 2000s often posted information on his Twitter page  about the royal family of Saudi Arabia. Related to the UAV deal, the analyst aimed at presenting the mechanism by which bilateral cooperation works [18]. Saudi military expert accused Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman of using Israeli interests to acquire Israeli produced UAV’s. According to some experts, Mohammed bin Salman was the second most influential official in the country and played a key role in the Riyadh-Tel Aviv contacts.

Saudi Arabia has tried to strengthen the country’s armed forces through UAV capabilities. In 2013, the Saudi side discussed the possibility of acquiring intelligent UAVs from the AUA (Denel Dynamics military-industrial Company). Israel is one the world’s leading manufacturers of UAVs production, however a possible bilateral deal, for obvious reasons, leads to sharp criticism from the Arab world.

According to an unknown source, in 2015, the former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Barak received an offer from a UAE mediator to support Saudi Arabia in acquiring attack cyber technologies. According to the Marker newspaper’s journalist Gur Megido [19], the mediator assured that he was backed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his brother Khaled bin Salman. Based on the newspaper, the mediator listed the companies whose products are of Riyadh’s interest. However, the deal never got to the implementation stage [20].

In October 2018, Al-Khalid news website in UAE confirms that representatives of Israel and Saudi Arabia met secretly and signed a deal to supply Riyadh with modern espionage equipment worth up to $250 million [21]. The website, citing diplomatic sources confirmed that part of the equipment had already been delivered. In January 2018, the Swiss newspaper Basler Zeitung stated that the Saudi Government has expressed interest in purchasing anti-tank defense systems for Israeli-produced Merkava tanks [22].

In June 2015, the retired major General Anwar Eshki and former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold met in the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations to discuss the issue of restraining Tehran’s influence in the Middle East. The sides discussed the common interest of opposing Iran.  Dore Gold stated in the meeting “We’re both allies of the United States. I hope this is the beginning of more discussion about our common strategic problems.” [23]. NewYork Times mentions that although Saudi Arabia and Israel have never had diplomatic relations, or that the Saudi Government has never formally acknowledged the existence of the Jewish state, the two nations have quietly exchanged intelligence for years, particularly about Iran. [24]

Meeting between Dore Gold and Anwar Eshki in June 2015

Dore Gold held numerous important positions in various governments of Israel. Between 1996-1997, he had been foreign affair advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Between 1997-1999, he had been Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. Between 2002-2004, he had been appointed advisor to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In May 2015, Netanyahu appointed Gold as Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and he served until October 2016. Currently D. Gold is the President of Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) [25]. Gold played an important role in negotiations between Israel and Arab countries.

In July 2016, retired General Anwar Eshkin visited Israel, where he had meetings with members of the Knesset to discuss dialogue with Israel over Riyadh’s peace initiative [26]. The delegation led by the General also included representatives of Saudi research, academic and business centers. The General also had a meeting with the Director-General of the Foreign Ministry Dore Gold. It should be noted that Eshkin held senior positions in Saudi Arabia’s defense and foreign policy departments.

Meeting of the delegation led by Anwar Eshkin with members of the Knesset, July 2016

Between 2009-2010, reports flooded that Saudi Arabia allowed Israeli jets to use its airspace for a bombing raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities [27]. Moreover, it was reported that the information was confirmed by one of the US official sources that the go ahead was from the US State Department [28]. The provision of a narrow air corridor in the Northern part of Saudi Arabia will reduce the space for air strikes on Iran: the targets are 2250km away from Israel. According to the source, it was envisaged to target Natanz and Komi Uranium enrichment facilities, Isfahan Gas Reservoir and Araks heavy-water reactor. According to some data, former head of Israel’s Intelligence Agency Meir Dagan assured Netanyahu that Riyadh agreed to Israeli air force flying through their airspace [29]. Early in 2009, Dagan had secret discussions with the leaders of Saudi Arabia. The information was based on a report published in the British newspaper The Sunday Times [30]. The Saudi side however denied that information.

In mid-2014, David Hearst, editor of Middle East Eye in London published an article, according to which Saudi Arabia supported Israel’s activities in Palestine-Israeli conflict and that the intelligence officials of both countries met regularly [31]. In the article, the author reaffirmed that Riyadh allowed Israel to use its airspace to strike Iran. According to Hearst, Saudi Arabia financed Israel’s campaign against Iran [32]․ “Saudi Arabia and Israel are united by common interests in the region. Both sides invade neighboring countries (Lebanon, Yemen) or by funding proxy wars and coups (Syria, Egypt, Libya), and see common enemies such as Iran, Turkey, Qatar and Hamas. And they have common allies such as the US and British military industrial establishments. The problem is that for the first time in history, there is coordination between the two military powers” [33]. The Hearst’s article was published between July-August of 2014, during the Israeli military operation “Indestructible Rock” in the Gaza Strip.

B etween 2005-2018, Mohammed bin Nawaf Al Saud, Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Great Britain described Israeli actions in the Gaza Strip as “a crime against humanity” however, did not deny the fact that the representatives of the two countries were in contact with each other. “Any contact between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel has been limited to attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully” [34].

In April 2016, Saudi Arabia and Egypt signed an agreement on border demarcation agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia according to which the sides agreed to hand over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia. Egypt has signed a number of agreements with Saudi Arabia, including launching of a free zone on the Sinai Peninsula. The status of the island was established by the Israeli and Egypt peace treaty signed in 1979 and the Saudi side promised to respect the principles of the treaty [35]. The islands of strategic importance are in the Red Sea in the southern part of the Gulf of Aqaba. Israeli Government expressed no complaints about the treaty. In April, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stated that Saudi Arabia had submitted a written guarantee of free access to the sea [36] and agreed to respect the peace treaty [37].

Islands of Tiran and Sanafir

The control of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir has repeatedly shifted: after the 6-day war in 1967, they came into Israeli hands and in 1982 they passed back onto Egypt. The strategic importance of the islands is that they are situated in the immediate neighborhood of the seaport leading to the Jordanian ports of Akaba and Israeli port of Eilat.

According to some sources, a meeting between Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli officials with the mediation of American and Jordanian sides took place in March 2017, where military operations and intelligence programs were coordinated. It was reported that the previous such meeting was held in 2015, in Eilat [38].

According to some reports [39], a member of the Saudi royal family arrived in Israel for a secret visit and the name of Mohammad bin Salman was circulated. The Saudi prince held talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu and senior officials from the Israeli Foreign Ministry and discussed a regional peace initiative, as well as issues of joint opposition to Iran’s nuclear program [40]. According to these sources, Minister of Defense Mohammad bin Salman accompanied by General Anwar Eshkin visited Israel [41]. In October 2017, Riyadh announced that the news doesn’t correspond to the reality [42].

In June 2017, the two countries were negotiating economic ties. It was reported that the sides agreed to allow the Israeli EL AI airline to use the airspace of the kingdom. In July 2017, Israeli Communication Minister Ayoub Kara negotiated Riyadh for Tel Aviv-Mecca direct flight, which would allow the Israeli Muslim population to visit Mecca [43],[44]. According to Kara, he was in touch with the representatives of the governments Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries regarding this issue and were ready to solve it [45]. The possibility of dialogue between the parties increased, when in May 2017 President Trump arrived in Israel on a direct flight from Saudi Arabia for the first time [46]. An agreement was reached between the sides, according to which Aid India airline would organize direct flights from Delhi to Tel Aviv through the airspace of Saudi Arabia from March 2018 [47]. This was also announced by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu [48], and the first flight took place in late March of 2018 [49].

In November 2017, Chief of General Staff the Israeli Defense Forces Gadi Eizenkot gave an interview to the Saudi news agency Elaph in London for the first time. Eizenkot emphasized the need to form a new international coalition against Iran as well as Tel Aviv’s willingness to exchange intelligence with Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, in its fight against Iran. According to him, there is a “complete understanding” between Tel Aviv and Riyadh on the issue of Iran. “Saudi Arabia has never been our enemy and has never taken part in wars against Israel” [50].  

In December 2017, Israeli Transport and Road Safety Minister Israel Katz also gave an interview to Elaph, by inviting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Israel, however, the website didn’t publish that part [51].

In March 2018, Times of Israel periodical reference to Emirati newspaper Al Khaleej Times noted: “There is a warming in relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which is however not public” [52]. It was reported that high-ranking officials of the two countries had several secret meetings in Cairo through a mediation of the Egyptian side to discuss Trump’s Middle East peace plan (“Deal of the Century”). It was said in the newspaper, “the warm relations between the two countries are damaging the Palestinian Authority and it seems that Israel is no longer the greatest enemy in the region anymore” [53].

Furthermore, the London based Arab newspaper al Arabi al Jadeed reported in March 2018, that Mohammad bin Salman met with Israeli officials to discuss the “Deal of the Century” [54]. According to the source, Riyadh intended to include Israel in the Red Sea coastal development project” [55].

In June 2018, Trump’s Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, who did a lot to strengthen US-Israeli cooperation during Trump’s presidency, met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss the “Deal of the Century” [56]. In February 2019, Kushner again met with Mohammed bin Salman to intensify bilateral cooperation for the peace initiative [57]. In late 2018, there were news in the media that Netanyahu and his staff make efforts to improve diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. According to Mako newspaper, negotiations were attended by Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen and were supported by American diplomats. The Israeli called for open and formal contacts between the two countries [58],[59].

In November 2018, in his interview to the Washington Post President Trump announced that maintaining allied relations with Saudi Arabia is necessary to counter Iran and to support Israel. “The Saudis are important allies and Israel would have much more problems without them. We need a counterbalance to Iran”, said the US President [60],[61].

In November 2018, Washington Post reported that Netanyahu has repeatedly spoken to senior officials of Trump’s administration by supporting Mohammad bin Salman with allegations against the Saudi Crown Prince for organizing the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  According to Netanyahu, the Crown Prince is a strategically important partner in the Middle East region [62]. The source also noted that Israel, Egypt and UAE support Trump’s administration against Iran [63].

According to some experts, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was intended to disrupt relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv. The problem is that the former Saudi royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani and the former Saudi Deputy Intelligence Chief Ahmad Asiri, both of whom were responsible for the Riyadh-Tel Aviv behind-the-scenes negotiations. Secret meetings were in the focus of an investigation into the journalist’s murder. It was noted that Saud al-Qahtani was responsible for improving the image of Israel in the Saudi media [64]. Moreover, it was stressed that both of them are among the close associates and trusted advisers to Mohammad bin Salman.

A ccording to the Washington post, the name of Saud al-Qahtani was circulated in spying projects of both Israel and Saudi Arabia in 2017 [65]. Israel approved the sale of NSO Pegasus spy software to Saudi Arabia. According to the source, Riyadh could use the program to eavesdrop on Jamal Khashoggi phone calls and messages [66].

In January 2019, the meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Arab countries took place, where one of the key issues on the agenda was to improve relations with Israel [67],[68]. In March 2019, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt sought to remove a provision against the settlement of relations with Israel from the session of the Arab League Parliamentary Assembly, however, the presiding Jordan rejected the proposal [69].

In July 2019, a six-member group of journalists and bloggers from Arab countries visited Israel. The visit was organized by Israeli Government aiming to familiarize with Tel Aviv’s position on regional developments. The journalist’s group visited Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Knesset, met with politicians, diplomats and scientist [70]. Representatives from Saudi Arabia and Iraq for the first time had been included in the journalists delegation.

In September 2019, Israeli Foreign Minister congratulated Saudi Arabia on the national holiday of the unification of the Najd and Hejaz regions of the Arabian Peninsula on Twitter for the first time. “We congratulate the Saudi people on the occasion of its 89th national day. May this holiday take place again in safety, security and a climate of peace, cooperation and good neighborliness. We ask God,  for development, prosperity and advancement will be successful”, it was said in the message [71],[72].  In October 2019, the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the US Rome Bint Bandar congratulated on the Jewish New Year - Rosh Hashanah wished a happy and sweet new year. Shana Tova” [73].

In January 2020, the Foreign Ministry of Israel officially allowed the citizens of the country to visit Saudi Arabia. In response, however, the Foreign Ministry of Saudi Arabia noted that Israeli citizens are not allowed to enter the country: “The situation could be changed if a peace treaty between the two states is signed” [74]. The need to counteract the influence of Tehran in the Middle East increases the possibility of combining the interests of Tel Aviv and Riyadh. Israeli and Tel Aviv’s behind-the-scenes dialogue on Iran’s containment policy under the auspices of Washington gradually becomes more substantial and public. Despite the compliance of interests in the fight against Tehran, Tel Aviv and Riyadh go on maintaining “cautious” competition in the Middle East. 

[1] https://mepc.org/periphery-israels-search

[2] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/b2f8/219

[3] https://mepc.org/periphery-israels-search

[4] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5364982.stm


[6] https://web.archive.org/web/201504120

[7] https://web.archive.org/web/201504120

[8] https://web.archive.org/web/201504120

[9] https://web.archive.org/web/201504120

[10] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/b2f8/

[11] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/b2f8/

[12] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/b2f8/


[14] https://jcpa.org/article/the-future-of-kurdist

[15] https://jcpa.org/article/the-future-of-kurdis

[16] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5364982.stm

[17] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5364982.stm

[18] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5364982.stm

[19] https://jcpa.org/article/the-future-of-kurdis

[20] https://www.meforum.org/3838/israel-kurds

[21] https://jcpa.org/article/the-future-of-kurdis

[22] http://magalcom.com/en/about/

[23] https://jcpa.org/article/the-future-of-kurdis

[24] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/

[25] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/

[26] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/


[28] http://www.miftah.org/Display.cfm?DocId

[29] https://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast

[30] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017

[31] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017

[32] https://www.latimes.com/world/middleeas

[33] https://www.latimes.com/world/middleeas

[34] https://www.gazeta.ru/business/2017/09

[35] https://www.gazeta.ru/business/2017/09

[36] https://www.gazeta.ru/business/2017/09

[37] https://ria.ru/20170925/1505441730.html

[38] https://carnegie.ru/commentary/73485

[39] https://carnegie.ru/commentary/73485

[40] https://carnegie.ru/commentary/73485

[41] https://carnegie.ru/commentary/73485

[42] https://carnegie.ru/commentary/73485

[43] https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion

[44] https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion

[45] https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/israeli

[46] https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy

[47] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/22/world

[48] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/22/world