The secret history of Israeli-Saudi relations

Ofer Aderet 

Haaretz  /  October 1, 2023 

Clandestine contacts over the decades have been spurred on by common enemies, whether Egypt in the past or Iran and Hezbollah now, but Israel reportedly missed chances to make peace. 

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clinches a peace agreement with the Saudis, he’ll have his diplomatic skills to thank, but also a century of clandestine ties that have ranged from intelligence sharing to secret peace initiatives.

It all started in 1928. Eliahu Epstein – later Hebrew University President Eliahu Eilat – was a student of Middle Eastern studies at the Jerusalem-based university. He proposed that archaeologists from the school be sent to the Khaybar oasis in the Arabian Peninsula, where Jews had lived until the seventh century at the dawn of Islam.

The university’s president, Judah Magnes, took up the gauntlet and hoped to make contact through the British with Ibn Saud, who would found the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia four years later. But the British refused.

“With that, the possibility, even in secret, of a first Jewish-Saudi encounter was shelved,” wrote Elie Podeh, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University. Podeh was writing in his 2022 Hebrew-language book “From Mistress to Common-Law Wife” about Israel’s secret ties with countries and minorities of the Middle East.

The contacts with the Saudis perhaps shouldn’t come as much of a surprise – they and the Israelis have had mutual enemies; for example, formerly with Egypt and currently with Iran. Publicly, the Saudi royal court was hostile toward Judaism and Zionism.

“The leaders of Saudi Arabia adhered to a realistic and pragmatic approach toward the Jews in Palestine and later toward the existence of a Jewish state,” Podeh wrote. Sometimes it was the Saudis who put up obstacles, sometimes the Israelis.

Podeh believes that Israel missed out on chances to upgrade the relationship by ignoring approaches or rejecting them “for reasons that are not understood.” Podeh calls this “surprising and disappointing.” 

‘Rocky ground’

But let’s get back to Eliahu Epstein, the Hebrew University student. He wasn’t discouraged by the failure of his plan for an archaeological mission at the oasis. In 1937, when he was an official at the Jewish Agency, he met in Beirut with Fuad Hamza, the director general of the Saudi Foreign Ministry. The meeting paved the way for a tête-à-tête between Hamza and David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency who would become Israel’s first prime minister.

As Professor Yehoshua Porath of Hebrew University once described it, “At the meeting Ben-Gurion analyzed the Land of Israel question in the context of … the Land of Israel being surrounded by Arab countries, whereas for Hamza, the Land of Israel conflict should have been discussed from the viewpoint of the Arabs of the Land of Israel.”

Podeh wrote in his book that “although the positions of the two sides were far apart, the talks helped each side get acquainted with the outlooks and interests of the other.”

Also in 1937, Epstein went to London in the delegation representing British Palestine’s Jewish community at the coronation of King George VI. There, Epstein failed to make contact with the Saudi crown prince, Emir Saud, and King Ibn Saud’s secretary, Yusuf Yasin, who represented the king at the event.

“When Hamza informed Emir Saud about his meeting with Ben-Gurion, Saud boiled with anger and took Hamza to task,” Porath wrote. Moshe Sharett, Israel’s second prime minister who at the time headed the Jewish Agency’s diplomatic department, was also rebuffed when he asked a Saudi diplomat in London if he could make direct contact with the king. Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, who would become Israel’s first president, also failed.

The historian Harold Armstrong, who had direct access to the Saudi king and approached Ibn Saud on Ben-Gurion’s behalf, wrote to Ben-Gurion that this seed might bear fruit. But Armstrong quipped that the ground was rocky and barren.

During those years, there were also efforts to establish an Arab federation that would include the Land of Israel as a Jewish component. Under one proposal, Ibn Saud would head the federation, an idea promoted by St. John Philby, a British Arab affairs expert who had ties to the royal court.

Plenty of pragmatism

Saudi Arabia has never really taken part in the wars against Israel. The very small force it sent for the War of Independence barely saw action. Ibn Saud opposed the UN Partition Plan that helped establish a Jewish state, but that was mainly due to the monarch’s concerns that Jordan would extend its influence in the Arab world if it controlled the Arab portion of British Palestine. Later, Ibn Saud came to terms with the partition plan.

“The founding father of the Saudi kingdom laid the foundations for its foreign policy, especially regarding Zionism and Israel,” Podeh said of Ibn Saud. “That included a pragmatic political approach not based on a rigid ideological doctrine.”

Ibn Saud’s successor, King Saud, didn’t send forces to help Egypt in Israel’s 1956 Sinai Campaign. Relations had deteriorated between Cairo and Riyadh amid Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab aspirations.

The hostility reached its peak in the ‘60s when Egypt took part in the civil war in Yemen. For the first time, Israel and Saudi Arabia found themselves on the same side, seeking to reduce the Egyptian threat. According to one report, Saudi intelligence chief Kamal Adham was aware that Israeli planes were flying through Saudi airspace on their way to drop ammunition for the royalist forces in Yemen.

During the 1967 Six-Day War [June War], Saudi King Faisal also didn’t send forces to Egypt. And though he publicly made antisemitic remarks, his foreign policy remained pragmatic. Podeh claims that since that war, Saudi Arabia has indirectly recognized Israel within the 1967 borders. There were also reports back then about failed attempts at a dialogue between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

After the war, Baron Edmond de Rothschild met in Paris with Saudi tycoon Adnan Khashoggi, who was close to the royal court, to try to arrange a meeting with King Faisal. Khashoggi demanded legal documentation from Israel’s prime minister, Golda Meir, regarding authority to conduct the negotiations, which was never provided.

Nahik Navot of the Mossad recounted that in 1969, King Faisal proposed talks he hoped would result in a diplomatic agreement. David Kimche, a senior Mossad official and later the director general of the Foreign Ministry, wrote to Navot that “perhaps a vision of dialogue will grow out of the darkness in the corners of Islam, which hates the Jews and Judaism.” But according to Navot, “the Saudi feeler wasn’t followed up”.

Saudi forces scarcely took part in the 1973 Yom Kippur War [October War], and during that decade, Khashoggi remained involved in clandestine contacts. His business dealings with Israelis Yaakov Nimrodi and Kimche made him a possible conduit. Kimche gave him information about a plan to undermine the Saudi regime, which Khashoggi promised to send on to Prince Fahd, who later became heir to the throne. Later, via an Arab intelligence agency, Israel gave the Saudis information on an assassination plot against Fahd.

“Under the surface, for a considerable period, limited intelligence exchanges were carried out,” Kimche later said. And the early ‘70s saw efforts to arrange a secret meeting in London between Adham – the Saudi intelligence chief – and Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban. “Everything was ready,” said Efraim Halevy, a former Mossad chief. “But it was early in the morning and my colleague didn’t wake Abba Eban up in time, so he didn’t get to the meeting.”

As Halevy put it, “Maybe everything would look different today. Sometimes that’s how it is. People shouldn’t sleep at the wrong time.”

Turning point

After the historic 1977 election, when Likud’s Menachem Begin became prime minister, Fahd boosted his efforts to make contact with Israel. Begin’s reputation as a strong figure who could lead a peace process contributed. Saudi Arabia also played an important role in pressuring the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel to recognize each other.

That year, Fahd remarked that no one thought about wiping Israel off the map [sic] anymore. It was a country that existed in the Middle East. According to Podeh, Saudi intelligence chief Adham “spoke in terms of direct economic and technological cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” but Israel’s Foreign Ministry didn’t bite.

In August 1977, an American with close ties to Fahd sent a letter to Israeli lawyer Ze’ev Sher, an associate of Begin’s bureau chief, Yechiel Kadishai. At issue was the feasibility of a Saudi-Israeli agreement.

That December there was another message from the Saudis. A Palestinian journalist with ties to the Saudi royal court was asked to convey a secret message from Fahd to Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan. The Palestinian tried to do so via Rafi Sitton, who worked at the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service.

“The following day, a response was received from the [foreign] minister’s office that it would be impossible to arrange the meeting unless he provided its contents in advance,” Podeh recounted. In his own book, Sitton wrote that he was “totally stunned by the establishment’s complete apathy toward his mission.” It later turned out that Fahd wanted to ask Israel to lift its veto over the sale of F-15 jets to the Saudis.

The year 1981 featured a surprise. Prince Fahd presented a peace initiative requiring an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories it captured in 1967, including East Jerusalem, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Under the plan, all the countries in the region would agree to live in peace, which would mean recognition of Israel.

But Israel rejected the plan out of hand. Begin described it as “a sophisticated and rational system for the total destruction of Israel” and called Saudi Arabia “a desert country where there is still discrimination from the Middle Ages, with the chopping off of hands and heads, with corruption that screams to the heavens.”

Coincidentally, shortly after the peace initiative was made public, Israel and Saudi Arabia found themselves in formal contacts via a third party. This happened in September 1981, when an Israeli missile ship ran aground on the Saudi coast. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon contacted the Americans to coordinate a rescue mission with the Saudis and the matter was resolved peacefully.

Also in the ‘80s, the Mossad had casual contacts with the Saudis. Aharon Scherf, a member of the Mossad division responsible for international relations, said that “there was discrete contact that was kept top secret.” The division’s director, Nahum Admoni, remained in contact with Saudi intelligence chief Turki bin Faisal.

In 1983, now-King Fahd privately remarked that Israel was a fact on the ground, while Saudi Arabia wanted to see relations among all the countries of the Middle East, including Israel, so that they could help each other and spend their money on paving roads and building hospitals, not producing weapons.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Israel and Saudi Arabia again faced a common adversary when they both came under missile attack from Iraq. The first public meeting of Israelis and Saudis came the same year at the Middle East peace conference in Madrid. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, represented the Gulf Cooperation Council. “We spoke with Bandar freely,” Eitan Bentzur, the director general of the Foreign Ministry, told Podeh.

By 1995, Scherf had left the Mossad and began work at Yaakov Nimrodi’s firm, Israel Land Development. He set up a meeting with the former Saudi finance minister, who had just left office, to discuss economic projects.

When Netanyahu became prime minister in 1996, the clandestine contacts continued. They included a plan to build a natural gas pipeline from Saudi Arabia to West Bank land controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

In 2002, the Saudi crown prince at the time, Abdullah, presented the Saudi peace initiative that included an Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, in exchange for a full normalization between Israel and the Arab world.

“I would further say to the Israeli people that if their government abandons the policy of force and oppression and embraces true peace, we will not hesitate to accept the right of the Israeli people to live in security with the people of the region,” Abdullah declared.

In 2006, after the Second Lebanon War, direct secret talks were held, this time because of two other common enemies of Israel and Saudi Arabia: Iran and Hezbollah. These included discussions between Prince Bandar, then the head of the Saudi National Security Council, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was accompanied by Mossad chief Meir Dagan.

“The meeting marked an upgrade in the ties between the two countries,” Podeh said. “It was the beginning of the coalescing of an anti-Iranian, anti-Shi’ite camp.”

In 2010, Dagan visited Saudi Arabia – the first time that an Israeli official set foot in the kingdom. In 2014, Netanyahu also met with Bandar. In 2020, Netanyahu and then-Mossad chief Yossi Cohen visited Saudi Arabia and met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

But the past few months have been the most intense for advancing ties. They have included the first official visit to Saudi Arabia by an Israeli cabinet member – Tourism Minister Haim Katz – albeit for a UN conference. Then there was the comment by Crown Prince Mohammed: “Every day we get closer” to an agreement with Israel.

Ofer Aderet – journalist at Haaretz, lecturer Tel Aviv University