An Israeli Journalist in Mecca, a Rabbi in Medina: Saudi's path to normalisation?
On an American passport, he entered Saudi Arabia, and with the help of a Saudi driver, snuck into Mecca, defying the centuries-old restrictions on the entry of non-Muslims into the holy site. During Hajj no less.
All would have been discreet - and unprovocative. But Jewish-Israeli Journalist, Gil Tamary, of Israel’s Channel 13, saw it pressing to declare through Twitter to the world, and especially to the culturally and religiously isolated Israelis, that he scored an unprecedented feat.
Shortly before Hajj, the Saudi authorities typically restrict entry into Mecca for non-Saudis who reside in the Kingdom. The holy sites have a certain capacity, and every country has a pilgrims quota annually. A flow of unauthorised pilgrims will not only jeopardise the safety of Hajj, but could also undermine Saudi national security.
Nonetheless, Mecca and its holy sites are not exactly an impenetrable domain, where every inch is guarded. It is a city like any other, open and contains millions of people from all over the world. Sneaking into it, in other words, is not mission impossible - or improbable.
''Saudi Arabia’s relations with Israel are complex; and have become more so after the Kingdom’s close allies - the UAE and Bahrain - established full diplomatic ties with Tel-Aviv. Riyadh, much like many Arab capitals that routinely sloganeered for Palestine, has engaged in clandestine relations with Israel for decades over issues with mutual interests.''
Precisely because of that, the majority of the furious public who observed the Israeli journalist’s stunt called into question not how he made it into Islam’s holy capital, but the ominously political connotation and timing of the move. Is it a trial balloon by the Saudi government to test people’s reaction? Some wondered.
Responding to the backlash on social media, Mecca’s regional police shortly after declared they arrested a Saudi man who allegedly helped the “non-Muslim” journalist enter the holy city. The police referred to the intruder as only an “American citizen.”
Meanwhile in Riyadh, US-born rabbi Jacob Herzog posted on his Twitter account photos showing him at the home of controversial Saudi Imam Ahmed Qassem Ghamdi, much to the anger and surprise of many Saudi and Arab commentators.
What sparked most anger was Herzog’s photos in Medina, the resting place of Prophet Muhammad, taken near the graveyard of the Prophet’s companions who died during the iconic battle of Uhud in 625 AD.
The Rabbi, who has close links to Israel, visited Saudi Arabia several times since 2021. He describes himself as a businessman who seeks interfaith understanding, as well as looks to coordinate Jewish activities in the Kingdom.
Among the hundreds of business leaders/owners visiting Saudi, there are those who follow the Jewish faith. To Herzog, they require some sort of community representation, a role which he feels he should undertake.
Much like Mecca, for nearly 1400 years, only Muslims were “officially” allowed to visit Medina. However, this year, the Saudi authorities reportedly removed the signs reading “Muslims only” on the road to Medina and replaced them with ones reading “boundaries of the holy sanctuary.”
While many opposed it, others saw the step as a welcoming gesture that reflects Islam’s tolerance and an inevitable part of the Kingdom’s larger transformation toward openness and broader business opportunities. In May, a delegation of 50 Jewish business leaders, some affiliated with Israel, visited Medina’s Prophet’s Mosque (without entering it).
Yet, the question is not about the religious identity of the intruders/visitors, but rather their political and ideological affiliation with Israel, and the repercussions of that. Hence the question, is Saudi on a path to normalise with Israel?
To answer the question, a simple yes or no would be rather reductionist and inaccurate.
Saudi Arabia’s relations with Israel are complex; and have become more so after the Kingdom’s close allies - the UAE and Bahrain - established full diplomatic ties with Tel-Aviv.
Riyadh, much like many Arab capitals that routinely sloganeered for Palestine, has engaged in clandestine relations with Israel for decades over issues with mutual interests.
In the 1960s, both countries saw Egypt’s Nasser as a threat and supported Yemen’s Royalists against the leader and his Soviet-backed allies in Sanaa. Israeli and Saudi intelligence services cooperated in delivering weapons and logistics to the Yemeni Royalists, who were stationed in Saudi Arabia.
Gaza is trying to restore a semblance of normality, hours after a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad following 3 days of bombing that saw at least 44 Palestinians killed & over a hundred injured, mostly civilians #GazaUnderAttack https://t.co/n1e5fZLqgV— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) August 8, 2022
Today, Iran and its proxies are the new ground over which Tel-Aviv and Riyadh coordinate closely. Mainly because of this, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who reportedly met with former Israeli PM Netanyahu in Neom in 2020, said Israel is “a potential ally.”
The kingdom did not oppose UAE or Bahrain’s normalisations either. Riyadh could have stopped Manama from normalising with only a hand gesture, if it wanted.
But at the same time, Riyadh needs to strike a balance between its security requirements and political ambitions - no matter how controversial - and its posture and interests in the Muslim as well as Arab World - where Palestine remains a central issue.
Its position as the home of Islam’s holiest sites dictates a certain prestige and regional influence. Should Riyadh commence open relations with Israel, Saudis will lose their credibility and some of their regional leverage.
Several Muslim states would not follow the Saudi lead: not Algeria, the rising Arab country and adamant supporter of Palestinians, not Iraq whose parliament has recently criminalised normalisation, and certainly not Pakistan, which still views Israel - like the majority of Arabs - as an illegitimate colonial entity.
The power vacuum Riyadh will leave as a result could present a rare opportunity for regional countries, like Turkey and Iran, to swoop in to fill it.
There is also the fact that because the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries remain divided on Israel, a Saudi step to recognise the latter could fracture the already fragile GCC unity and may push certain member states closer to Iran.
Saudi leaders are aware of these stakes and have shown reserved positions and expressed ambivalent statements regarding Tel-Aviv, which suggests that normalisation in the literal sense might not happen any time soon. Especially bearing in mind that there is far less that Saudi Arabia can gain from Israel than the other way around.
The recent Saudi-Iranian talks also signal that Israel’s hopes to snatch Riyadh from its surrounding, by accentuating Iran as a mutual existential threat, might be overly optimistic, or at least premature.
Against this backdrop, Riyadh’s official policy remains that recognising Israel will not take place until a Palestinian state has been established, as per late King Abdul Aziz’s line and the 2002 Saudi-introduced Arab Peace Initiative, which Israel has long disregarded.
The Kingdom continues to be Palestine’s top financial backer - donating $6.5 billion since 2000 - and, along with other Arab countries, plays a supportive diplomatic role for Palestinians internationally.
None of that, however, will stop the development of Israeli-Saudi security and business cooperation. Most recently, Al-Rajhi family has become the biggest shareholder in Israeli mobility intelligence company Otonomo Technologies Ltd. But to the realists among Israelis, this could be the limit. Any future “peace” with Riyadh will likely be akin to the peace with Egypt: cold and unpopular among the public, but stable and economically beneficial.
Whether the Israeli-Saudi ties will deepen and evolve to open and warm diplomatic relations depends on two factors: a negative shift in the public opinion regarding Palestine, and further deterioration regarding Iran and the war in Yemen.
Evidence suggests that both scenarios are unlikely at the moment.
Arab/Muslim public opinion remains overwhelmingly pro-Palestine, no less since normalisation. Statistics suggest that the GCC minority who initially supported normalisation has now become even smaller.
Recently, the Imam of Mecca, Saleh Bin-Hmeid, lashed out at “the invading and thieving Jewish-Israelis.” The Saudi government, who routinely sets guidelines for Imam’s speeches, took no actions against Bin-Hmeidd, suggesting that Saudi Arabia sees the path to normalisation as bumpy and uncertain. This is especially true considering that the Saudi-Iranian talks are showing signs of progress, albeit slowly.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
Have questions or comments? Email us at: email@example.com
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.