Marc Lynch

About that Saudi-Israeli handshake

A seemingly spontaneous Saudi-Israeli handshake at a European conference on security is mushrooming into what al-Quds al-Arabi calls an "unprecedented" public debate about the extent of official Arab-Israeli relations. The story isn’t especially interesting on its merits: Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon (most recently in the news for an ill-considered snub of the Turkish ...

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A seemingly spontaneous Saudi-Israeli handshake at a European conference on security is mushrooming into what al-Quds al-Arabi calls an "unprecedented" public debate about the extent of official Arab-Israeli relations. The story isn’t especially interesting on its merits: Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon (most recently in the news for an ill-considered snub of the Turkish ambassador) seized the opportunity at a security conference in Munich the other day to maneuver former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal into an unprecedented public handshake.

While it might not seem like much, the picture of the handshake has rocketed through Arab politics and has become the focal point for an unusually blunt public discourse on the well-known reality of official Arab ties to Israel. The way the story is playing out is an object lesson in the power of publicity in Arab politics and in the limits of the much-mooted new "alliance" between Arabs and Israel against Iran. It shows both that many Arab leaders are indeed perfectly willing to work with the Israelis, but also that the political costs of this in the Arab sphere remain high — and that Israel’s policies towards Gaza and the Palestinians really do have a cost even if Arab leaders themselves don’t seem to much care.

For the Netanyahu government, the handshake was something of a coup. It allows Israel to claim that its diplomatic isolation is less than it appears, and that the costs of their polices towards Gaza and the Palestinians are less than believed. It offered a rare glimpse of the possibility of normalization with the Arabs at a time when a sense of siege prevails. It reinforces the popular Israeli and American narrative that the Arabs are moving towards alignment with Israel in the face of a common Iranian threat, and that the immobilized peace process does not stand in the way.

At the same time, and for the same reasons, it was deeply embarrassing to the Saudis for Prince Turki to be photographed publicly shaking hands with Israel’s Foreign Minister at a time when Israeli policies and its government are more loathed in the Arab world than ever. A succession of top Saudi officials, including King Abdullah, have repeatedly insisted that there would be no normalization or peace with Israel until it accepted a two-state solution along the lines of the 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative. Prince Turki therefore put out a statement that Ayalon had been apologizing for insulting the Kingdom, and that the handshake did not mean Saudi recognition of Israel (Ayalon tweeted that this was "as fanciful as Arabian Nights stories").

The Arab media (at least the non-Saudi owned Arab media) is having a field day. Many commentators are taking the opportunity to highlight the extent of official Saudi and Arab contacts with Israel, with Turki in particular identified as a "specialist" in meeting with Israelis at international conferences. Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar uses the "warm greeting" as a window into the long history of open and secret meetings between Arab officials and Israelis. I could give many, many more examples. Calling these meetings an "open secret" overstates their "secrecy"– such contacts have long been reported and discussed. The photograph has crystallized the issue for the moment, as fleeting as the moment is likely to be.

The handshake affair is worth a post because it both reinforces and undermines the emerging conventional wisdom in Washington that the Arab regimes and Israelis are increasingly allies against Iran. Such expectations of an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran are hardly new. The Saudis and Egyptians were more or less openly aligned with Israel in its war against Hezbollah in 2006 (remember Condi Rice’s "birth pangs of the new Middle East"?), and to a lesser extent in the war on Gaza in 2008. Even in public, the "new Arab cold war" of the last few years has fairly openly and directly aligned the conservative Arab regimes with Israel against Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and the "Resistance" bloc. Much of the official and Saudi-owned Arab media has for years been waging a heavy-handed campaign against the Resistance bloc, implicitly adopting many Israeli frames (Hamas and Hezbollah irrationality and irresponsibility, Arab moderation, Iranian threat).

But the Saudi pushback on the photo also shows the ongoing sensitivity of such relations, and the limits of the official media campaign in support of this supposed Arab-Israeli alignment. The images from Gaza and the ongoing impact of Netanyahu and Lieberman’s foreign policy has more than overwhelmed all the efforts to justify and legitimate such an approach to the broader Arab public. That anger is real, and quite potent in many Arab countries and in the wider Arab public sphere. The Saudis prefer to keep such relations private because of this very real outrage, and the real political costs of being on the wrong side in public.

It’s a common mistake to assume that only the private views of leaders or only public discourse matters. Both levels matter, the private Realpolitik of Arab leaders and the real passions of the Arab public. The depth of the gap between the private views of Arab leaders and the predominant views of the Arab public explains much of the vitriol of the current "Arab cold war". Many Arabs are worried about Iran, no doubt about it, and many in the official camp are deeply hostile to Hamas, Hezbollah, and most other forms of populist opposition. But most also continue to be genuinely outraged by Israeli policies and reject any public relationship. It’s a cliche to say so but also true: don’t expect the much-predicted Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran to ever live up to its hype (at least publicly) without real movement towards Israeli-Palestinian peace.

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

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