No matter how hard the Saudi media machine struggles to justify official normalization with Israel on political, economic and security grounds, it will not reach its goal without providing Saudi Arabia’s hardline Sunni establishment with a religious justification.
BEIRUT, LEBANON (Analysis) — On Monday, pictures of Israeli journalist Ben Tzion, posing inside Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, inundated Arab news outlets and social media. Tzion held a bag with Hebrew script on it, publicly posing at several sites in Saudi Arabia. The scenes signal an unprecedented improvement in Saudi-Israeli relations.
When #Jew is visiting 2nd most #Holy #Masjid of #Islam #Faith after Al-Haram in #Mecca, and Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem comes 3rd. #Prophet Muhammad originally build this #Mosque in #Medina near his House in 622AD and is burried here as well in 632AD. #Peace in the #MiddleEast with #Respect and #Love towards Each other.
The interests of Riyadh and Tel Aviv overlap on more than one level, and observers have been busy trying to gauge the timing that Saudi Arabia will choose to officially announce normalization with Israel. There remains, however, a fundamental factor that Riyadh is working to put in place: legitimizing the normalization of ties with Israel through the powerful Saudi religious establishment, a force integral to Saudi daily life, and one that the Al Saud family has employed in the past to serve its political interests.
It may seem to observers that the Kingdom is entering a new phase in which national interests are put at the center of policy-making decisions in lieu of policy based on religious ideology. In conjunction with a massive media campaign, Riyadh has paid tens of millions of dollars to feed a narrative that Saudi Arabia is locked in an existential battle with extremism.
This narrative, crafted in large part by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), cannot be separated from the official Saudi position towards normalization with Israel. Bin Salman’s strategy to lay the foundation necessary to follow through with normalization with Tel Aviv encompasses a political, economic, security and — most essential of all — “religious” component.
No matter how hard the Saudi media machine struggles to justify official normalization with Israel on political, economic and security grounds, it will not reach its goal without providing Saudi Arabia’s hardline Sunni establishment with a religious justification. Saudi society is conservative in nature and looks to the conservative religious establishment for guidance on policy issues. Furthermore, Israel is viewed with widespread suspicion among Arabs across the region.
While MBS does have the blessings of the Committee of Senior Scholars, which represents the official Saudi state religious establishment, in normalizing ties with Israel, it’s uncertain how readily the Saudi public would embrace the move. This has led Saudi decision-makers to set a course that would gradually impose the religious establishment’s acceptability of the idea of normalization, a move that has precedent.
In the 1990’s, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz bin Baz, provided a religious justification for normalization with Israel with a fatwa that allowed the “rulers of the kingdom to normalize with the enemy if they see it in the interest of the state.”
The “Religious Peace Initiative”
In late July 2016 the Arab world was shocked by news of a visit by a Saudi delegation, led by retired Maj. Gen. Anwar Eshki, to the occupied Palestinian territories — as well as by rumors that the delegation met with senior Israeli figures. Observers were so preoccupied with the news of the unprecedented visit that crucial details about the Israeli figures with whom the delegation met went overlooked.
One of those figures was Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former deputy in the Israeli Knesset — who served in several previous positions, the most important being the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Diaspora Affairs — in addition to being the Chief Rabbi of Norway. In 2002, Melchior launched an initiative called the “Religious Peace Initiative.” As described on Melchior’s website, his initiative is a partnership project with Muslim clerics from Palestine and several Arab countries.
Days after the Melchior-Eshki meeting, the London-based “Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre” published an interview with Melchior, in which he related to the Centre his dealings with Anwar Eshki. Melchior explained that “the language used in the Arab Peace Initiative is a secular language, devoid of the spirit of religion that is fundamental to the peoples of the region.”
Melchior further said that he and Eshki discussed the “Hudaybiyah reconciliation” between Prophet Mohammed and the Jews. He was surprised to learn from Eshki that the writings of “Raed Bedair” (Melchior’s Muslim colleague in the initiative) about Hudaybiyah were read in Riyadh, saying: “all the religious leaders in Saudi Arabia are reading your books on this subject and are led by your thinking and are challenged by your thinking on this subject.” Melchior said that he decided to stay in constant contact with Eshki and concluded: “the day we visit Saudi Arabia as Israelis is closer than before, and it will happen very soon.”
While some may dismiss the significance of Melchior’s statements because he is a Haredi Rabbi, and therefore does not represent a large segment of the Israeli religious community, it is clear that other Israeli figures who played a key role in formulating settlement agreements with Arabs do support Melchior’s actions.
Yair Hirschfeld, one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo Accords, said that what Melchior is doing is “very important.” He echoed Melchior in the view that peace initiatives with Arabs have not been successful because “the religious factor has been excluded from these agreements.” In Hirschfeld’s view, the Jewish religious leadership should engage with the Islamic religious leadership.
In an interview with the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, Melchior claims that he played a major role in partnering with the Adam Center for Dialogue of Civilizations — a group run by former Hamas leader Imad Al-Falouji — to defuse the last clash that took place at the gates of Al-Aqsa Mosque in late July, when three Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli police during demonstrations over an Israeli decision to place metal detectors at the entrance to the Muslim holy site. The Rabbi refuses to speak about the actions he and his associates took to pressure the Islamic Waqf leaders in Jerusalem.
Many signs of Saudi-Israeli religious convergence
In addition to the dialogue between Melchior and Eshki, indications are emerging that clearly signal a green light by Riyadh to Saudi clerics to draw closer to Jewish religious bodies.
In May 2016, a forum on interfaith dialogue was held in the Slovak capital of Bratislava, in which Arab figures such as Egyptian Ambassador Amr El-Henawi and the representative of the Saudi Muslim World League in Vienna, Hisham Mahrougi, exchanged views with Shai Hermesh, chairman of the World Jewish Congress; Zvi Vapni, Tel Aviv’s ambassador to Slovakia; and Yakov Margi, a member of the Knesset.
The conversation centered around the “convergence of religions, particularly Judaism and Islam,” and “exploitation of participants to bring peace to the region.”
On April 1, 2017, the Muslim World League held a conference in Durban, South Africa, under the title of “Diversity and Coexistence,” attended by personalities of all faiths, including Rabbi Hillel Avidan.
On September 17, the Saudi Muslim World League organized a conference in New York called “The International Conference on Civilizational Communication between the United States of America and the Muslim World.” The Saudi organization, led by former Saudi Minister of Justice Mohammed bin Abdul-Karim Al-Issa, brought Christian and Jewish religious figures together leaders from Egypt’s top religious institution, Al-Azhar, and clerics from the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Morocco and other Muslim-majority nations.
Al-Issa’s guest list included prominent members of New York’s Jewish community and concluded with a personal visit by Al-Issa to Malcolm Hoenlein, the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. According to a press release, Hoenlein and Al-Issa discussed ways to “promote interfaith dialogue and fight the forces of extremism.” More recently, former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki Al-Faisal met on October 29 at the Sinai Temple Synagogue in Los Angeles with Rabbi David Wolpe, known for his power within AIPAC in the United States.
Back in the Middle East, images spread last month on social networking sites of Jewish figures visiting Saudi Arabia. The president of the American Jewish Congress, Jack Rosen, published photos on his Twitter page in October announcing that he was in Riyadh, and revealing “the Saudis’ desire to develop a business relationship with the Israelis.”
— Jack Rosen (@JackRosenNYC) October 25, 2017
In an illustration of the extent to which Saudi clerics have shifted their position on normalizing relations with Jewish figures, Avram Glazer, Executive Co-Chairman of the Manchester United football club, attended Friday prayers at the Al-Muhaisen mosque in Riyadh. The mosque’s Imam, Adel Al-Kalbani, had previously expressed opposition to the entry of non-Muslims to mosques in Riyadh, but the Imam seems to have had a change of heart. He argued after Glazer’s visit that the Jewish sportsman “wanted to know more about Islam, thus he was welcomed.” Glazer was allowed to take selfies at the pulpit of the mosque.
When U.S. President Donald Trump announced his first visit abroad at a landmark news conference in early May, he noted that he wanted his tour to include the cradles of the three heavenly religions (Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Rome). Trump may have been looking to echo Saudi Arabia’s evolving orientation towards normalization with Israel: “The coexistence of the three heavenly religions in the Middle East.”
When Air Force One flew for the first time directly from Riyadh to Tel Aviv, the shift in relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia was officially marked. It appears that the Saudi royal family’s mission to give religious credence to normalizing relations with Israel will not be difficult, as the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia seems primed to issue its blessings.
Top photo | Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sits during an allegiance pledging ceremony flanked by senior Saudi religious figures in Mecca, Saudi Arabia June 21, 2017. (Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Court)
Ali H. Mourad is a journalist and researcher focusing on Gulf affairs based in Beirut, Lebanon. He writes for Al-Ahd as well as al-Akhbar Lebanon.
A version of this article appeared in Arabic in Al-Ahd.
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