An Israeli journalist in Mecca, a rabbi in Medina

The Israeli journalist sneaking into Mecca was, to some, a Saudi government “stuntman” to test the waters of normalization, but it raised a question about a pre-existing history between Tel Aviv and Riyadh, writes Emad Moussa.

Its position as home to the most sacred sites of Islam gives it a certain prestige and regional influence. If Riyadh begins open relations with Israel, the Saudis will lose credibility and some of their regional influence, writes Emad Moussa. [GETTY]

With a US passport, he entered Saudi Arabia and, with the help of a Saudi driver, snuck into Mecca, defying centuries-old restrictions on non-Muslims entering the holy site. During Hajj no less.

Everything would have been discreet – and without provocation. But the Jewish-Israeli journalist, Gil Tamary, of Israel Channel 13saw him pressing to declare by Twitter to the world, and especially to culturally and religiously isolated Israelis, that he has achieved an unprecedented feat.

Shortly before the Hajj, Saudi authorities usually restrict entry to Makkah to non-Saudis residing in the Kingdom. Holy places have a certain capacity, and each country has an annual quota of pilgrims. A flow of unauthorized pilgrims will not only jeopardize Hajj security, but could also harm Saudi national security.

Nevertheless, Mecca and its holy places are not exactly an impenetrable domain, where every inch is guarded. It’s a city like any other, open and home to millions of people from all over the world. Sneaking in, in other words, isn’t mission impossible – or unlikely.

”Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Israel is complex; and became more so after the Kingdom’s close allies – the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – established full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. Riyadh, like many Arab capitals that have regularly raised pro-Palestine slogans, has engaged in clandestine relations with Israel for decades on issues of mutual interest.”

Precisely because of this, the majority of the furious public watching the Israeli journalist‘s stunt questioned not how he arrived in Islam’s holy capital, but the disturbing political overtones and timing of the move. Is this a trial balloon from the Saudi government to test people’s reaction? Some wondered.

Reacting to the backlash on social media, Mecca regional police said shortly after arresting a Saudi man who allegedly helped the “non-Muslim” journalist enter the holy city. The police mentioned the intruder as an “American citizen”.

Meanwhile in Riyadh, American-born Rabbi Jacob Herzog job photos on his Twitter account showing him at the home of the controversial Saudi imam Ahmed Qassem Ghamdi, much to the anger and surprise of many Saudi and Arab commentators.

What aroused the most anger was Herzog photos in Medinathe resting place of the Prophet Muhammad, taken near the cemetery of the Prophet’s Companions who died in the iconic Battle of Uhud in 625 AD.

The rabbi, who has close ties to Israel, visited Saudi Arabia several times since 2021. He describes himself as a businessman who seeks interfaith understanding and seeks to coordinate Jewish activities in the Kingdom.

Among the hundreds of business owners/owners who visit Saudi Arabia are those who follow the Jewish faith. For Herzog, they demand some sort of community representation, a role he feels he must take on.

Just like Mecca, for almost 1400 years only Muslims were “officially” allowed to visit Medina. However, this year the Saudi authorities would have removed the signs reading “Muslims only” on the road to Medina and replaced them with those reading “limits of the holy shrine”.

While many opposed it, others saw the step as a welcome gesture that reflects Islam’s tolerance and an inevitable part of the Kingdom’s wider transformation towards openness and broader business opportunities. . In May, a delegation from 50 Jewish business leaderssome affiliated with Israel, visited the Prophet of Medinas Mosque (without entering it).

Yet the question is not about the religious identity of the intruders/visitors, but rather about their political and ideological affiliation with Israel, and the repercussions of this. Hence the question, is Saudi Arabia on the path to normalization with Israel?

To answer the question, a simple yes or no would be rather simplistic and inaccurate.

Saudi Arabia’s relations with Israel are complex; and became more so after the Kingdom’s close allies – the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – established full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.

Riyadh, like many Arab capitals that have regularly raised pro-Palestine slogans, has had clandestine relations with Israel for decades on issues of mutual concern.

In the 1960s, the two 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 to deliver weapons and logistics to the Yemeni royalists, who were stationed in Saudi Arabia.

Today, Iran and its proxies are the new ground on which Tel Aviv and Riyadh are closely coordinating. Mainly because of this, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who would have met former Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at Neom in 2020, said israel is a potential ally.

The kingdom did not oppose the UAE or BahrainNor are normalizations. Riyadh could have prevented Manama from normalizing with a wave of his hand, if he wanted to.

But at the same time, Riyadh must find a balance between its security requirements and its political ambitions – as controversial as they are – and its posture and its interests in the Muslim and Arab world – where Palestine remains a central issue.

Its position as home to the most sacred sites of Islam gives it a certain prestige and regional influence. If Riyadh begins open relations with Israel, the Saudis will lose their credibility and some of their regional influence.

Several Muslim states would not follow the Saudi example: not Algeria, the rising Arab country and ardent supporter of the Palestinians, not Iraq whose parliament recently criminalized normalization, and certainly not Pakistan, which still considers Israel – like the majority of Arabs – as an illegitimate colonial entity.

The power vacuum that Riyadh will leave as a result could present a rare opportunity for countries in the region, such as Turkey and Iran, to rush to fill it.

There is also the fact that because Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries remain divided over Israel, a Saudi move to recognize the latter could shatter the already fragile GCC unity and bring some member states closer to Iran. .

Saudi leaders are aware of these issues and have displayed reserved positions and expressed ambivalent statements regarding Tel Aviv, suggesting that normalization in the literal sense may not be happening anytime soon. Especially bearing in mind that Saudi Arabia has much less to gain from Israel than the other way around.

The recent Saudi-Iranian talks also point out that Israel’s hopes of tearing Riyadh from its surroundings, by highlighting Iran as a mutual existential threat, may be overly optimistic, or at least premature.

In this context, Riyadh official policy however, recognition of Israel will not take place until a Palestinian state is established, in accordance with King Abdul Aziz’s line of fire and the Saudi law of 2002 Arab Peace Initiativethat Israel has long ignored.

The Kingdom continues to be Palestine’s first funder – donating $6.5 billion since 2000 – and, along with other Arab countries, plays a supportive diplomatic role for the Palestinians internationally.

However, none of this will stop the development of Israeli-Saudi cooperation in security and business. More recently, Al Rajhi family became the largest shareholder in Israeli mobility intelligence company Otonomo Technologies Ltd. realistic among Israelis, that could be the limit. Any future “peace” with Riyadh will likely resemble peace with Egypt: cold and unpopular with the public, but stable and economically beneficial.

Whether Saudi-Israeli relations will deepen and evolve into open and warm diplomatic relations depends on two factors: a negative change in public opinion regarding Palestine and a further deterioration regarding Iran and the war. in Yemen.

Evidence suggests that both scenarios are unlikely at this time.

Arab-Muslim public opinion remains overwhelmingly pro-Palestine, not least since normalization. Statistics suggest that the GCC minority that initially supported normalization has now become even smaller.

Recently, the Imam of Makkah, Saleh Bin Hmeid, castigated “the Israeli Jewish invaders and thieves”. The Saudi government, which regularly sets guidelines for the imam’s speeches, has taken no action against Bin-Hmeidd, suggesting that Saudi Arabia views the path to normalization as bumpy and uncertain. This is all the more true as the Saudi-Iranian talks show signs of progressalthough slowly.

Dr. Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer specializing in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

Do you have any questions or comments ? Email us at: [email protected]

The views expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or its staff.

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