As Saudi fans celebrated their shock World Cup win against Argentina in November, one took a video call from an unexpected admirer: the prime minister of Israel.
Beaming into his phone camera, Benjamin Netanyahu excitedly exchanged views on football and politics with the fan, a pro-Israel Saudi blogger. He even suggested at one point during the call that the Saudi blogger should join his right-wing Likud party.
Although the call was carefully stage-managed it sent a clear signal that Israel’s new prime minister is reviving his past efforts to normalise relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have proven to be one of the most elusive relationships in modern Middle East history.
Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic ties with Israel – and never has since Israel declared its independence in 1948 – but it is slowly and cautiously shifting closer to the Jewish state. For the most part they have found common ground in Iran, quietly sharing intelligence on their shared enemy, sources familiar with the region are saying.
This has led to growing speculation that their discreet, behind-the-scenes cooperation could turn into full diplomatic relations some time in the near future. Major hurdles remain, though, for example how do they find a path to any workable resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
‘Great white whale’
Mr Netanyahu, who made a surprise comeback to power in Israeli elections in November, seems to regard an official Israel-Saudi pact as his political ‘great white whale’, an achievement that has eluded him for a decade. If he manages to formalise relations with the kingdom it would undoubtedly be the crowning achievement of his political career.
Since his election victory he has used a number of interviews to insist that a deal with the Saudis was tantalisingly in reach: even suggesting that Israel’s recent, similar accords with the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bahrain have laid the groundwork for a formal pact with Riyadh.
“It didn’t happen without Saudi approval because those countries wanted to know what their big neighbour Saudi Arabia thought about it,” Mr Netanyahu explained at a recent conference on diplomacy, referring to the so-called Abraham Accords. “I can assure you, it wasn’t negative.”
He has also stated quite adamantly that a Saudi pact would resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a bold claim which overlooks significant reservations that Riyadh has,along with the Arab world at large, about officially embracing Israel.
Such a resolution would be very hard to secure, according to experts and former diplomats most familiar with the Saudi’s thinking on any pact. Such a coming together is a very different beast to the Abraham Accords, they say, which were largely motivated by lucrative business deals.
Leaders of the Islamic World
“The Abraham Accords don’t carry the same symbolic weight that normalisation with Saudi Arabia would carry. The situation is different to that of the Emirates and Bahrain in that the Saudis regard themselves as the leaders of the Islamic world. It is central to the Saudis in a way that it is not to other parts of the Gulf,” according to Sir John Jenkins, a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
When the Abraham Accords were signed on the lawns of the White House in September 2020, it unleashed a wave of optimism in the Trump administration about an imminent deal with Saudi Arabia.
But this never materialised, mainly due to Saudi Arabia’s insistence that all parties find what “a path to solving the issue of the Palestinians and finding a path to a Palestinian state”.
Extreme right-wing government
This creates a major headache for Mr Netanyahu, who has only been able to shore up his narrow election victory by allying with the extreme right-wing party Otzma Yehudit and handing its controversial leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a pivotal new role as National Security minister. The ultra-conservative Religious Zionism faction are also part of Mr Netanyahu coalition. Between them they make up the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history.
Mr Ben-Gvir, a convicted supporter of Jewish terrorism who wants to “re-assert ownership” of the West Bank, is a hurdle all on his own. He has been quite clear that he would be implacably opposed to any concession towards the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, the Saudi stance remains the same: they continue to remain loyal to the 2002 Arab-Peace Initiative, which requires the full withdrawal of Israel from the occupied Palestinian territories – a non-starter for Israel, which is expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
“I find it extremely hard to imagine the Saudis agreeing to normalisation without sustainable progress on a pact with the Palestinians, which clearly is not on offer,” Sir John said. “And the presence of Ben Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and others [in the Israeli government] will make the two sides more distant.”
A series of tense encounters between Arab fans and Israeli journalists in Qatar also suggest that parts of the Arab world are still not ready to embrace Israel, especially after a year which saw more than a hundred Palestinians killed by Israeli forces.
“There is no Israel, only Palestine,” one animated Saudi fan told an Israeli broadcaster shortly after Saudi Arabia’s World Cup loss to Poland. “Go please. You are not welcome here.”
US military support
There is also another sticking point, which was revealed by Mike Pompeo, the former US secretary of state, in an interview with the Telegraph last year. The US, he said, would have to provide greater support against Iranian proxy groups attacking Gulf cities before any hope of further progress between Israel and Saudi Arabia could be made.
This could involve Israeli air defence support being provided to Saudi Arabia – though that is purely speculation at the moment – and Israeli officials have yet to comment. The outgoing Israeli government also declined to comment when asked if it had made any progress on the Saudi file.
Yet Mr Netanyahu seems undeterred by these significant obstacles in his path. It may be that, at the age of 73, he regards a Saudi pact as the final achievement in a long political career.
“Netanyahu wants this, he’s wanted this for ten years,” Sir John added. “The question is, what will he offer?”
Mr Netanyahu is yet to provide any answer to what he can offer the Saudis.
At least not yet. And not in public.