The two former spymasters sat an arm’s length apart. Both appeared calm and relaxed, neither suspicious of the other. Occasionally, they laughed with the crowd gathered at a synagogue in New York’s Upper East Side.
The panel discussion in October was about the future of the Middle East. At one end sat Efraim Halevy, who led Israel’s Mossad at the turn of the century. Next to him was Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud, who headed Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency for 24 years.
A few years ago, such a meeting would have seemed inconceivable. To this day, Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t have diplomatic relations. Until recently, any ties between the two countries, if they existed, were never discussed openly.
Now, the dynamics of a changing Middle East have revealed an association built on mutual interests, namely countering Iran’s growing influence in the region. For Israel and Saudi Arabia today, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Speaking to Israel Army Radio on Sunday, Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz admitted what many had long suspected. “We have partially clandestine ties with many Muslim and Arab countries. It’s the other side who is interested in hiding it,” Steinitz said. “Our ties with the moderate Arab world assists us in blocking Iran.”
Prince Faisal’s visit to a New York synagogue was one of a growing number of public interactions between Israelis and Saudis. In January, Faisal met with former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
In the summer of 2016, retired Saudi General Anwar Eshki visited Jerusalem, meeting Israeli politicians while seeking to revive interest in an old peace initiative from 2002. At the heart of the visit was the two countries’ mutual enemy: Iran.