Tue, Nov 21, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Israel has covert contacts with Saudis, minister says

NO SURPRISE?One analyst said covert ties were likely, given the mutual threat perceptions shared by the two countries, but Israelis tend to exaggerate such links

Reuters, JERUSALEM

An Israeli Cabinet minister on Sunday said that Israel has had covert contacts with Saudi Arabia amid common concerns over Iran, a first disclosure by a senior official from either country of long-rumored secret dealings.

The Saudi government had no immediate response to Israeli Minister of National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources Yuval Steinitz’s remarks.

A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also did not respond immediately to a request to comment.

Saudi Arabia and Israel view Iran as a main threat to the Middle East and increased tension between Tehran and Riyadh has fueled speculation that shared interests might push Saudi Arabia and Israel to work together.

Saudi Arabia maintains that any relations with Israel hinge on Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war, territory Palestinians seek for a future state.

US President Donald Trump’s peace envoys, seeking an Israeli-Palestinian agreement with regional support, have visited Saudi Arabia several times since he took office.

In an interview on Army Radio, Steinitz, a member of Netanyahu’s security Cabinet, did not characterize the contacts or give details when asked why Israel was “hiding its ties” with Saudi Arabia.

“We have ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries, and usually [we are] the party that is not ashamed,” he said. “It’s the other side that is interested in keeping the ties quiet. With us, usually, there is no problem, but we respect the other side’s wish, when ties are developing, whether it’s with Saudi Arabia or with other Arab countries or other Muslim countries, and there is much more ... [but] we keep it secret.”

In an interview on Thursday last week, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdel al-Jubeir, asked about reports of cooperation with Israel, cited a Saudi peace initiative, first adopted in 2002 by the Arab League, as key to forging any relationship.

“We have always said that if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved on the basis of the Arab peace initiative that Israel would have enjoyed normal relations, economic, political, diplomatic relations with all of the Arab countries, and so until that happens, we don’t have relations with Israel,” he said.

That plan makes those relations contingent on a full withdrawal by Israel from territory it captured in the 1967 Middle East war, including East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu has expressed tentative support for parts of the initiative, but there are many caveats on the Israeli side.

Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said Steinitz’s remarks “won’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to the budding courtship between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which is being especially pushed by the Israeli side.”

Last week, the Israeli military chief, Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot, told an Arabic language online newspaper that Israel was ready to share “intelligence information” with Saudi Arabia, saying their countries had a common interest in standing up to Iran.

Saudi Arabia has ratcheted up pressure on Iran, accusing Tehran of trying to expand its influence in Arab countries, often through proxies including the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah group.

Ibish said that given the mutual threat perceptions shared by Israel and Gulf Arab countries, it is unlikely that covert ties are not developing.

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