The Jewish state of Israel and the Sunni Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia have a complicated relationship. Official diplomatic relations between the two are non-existent. Yet unofficial contacts not only exist but appear to be thriving
Why? Because for all the bad blood between them, both consider Shiite Iran the greater threat. It's one of those enemy-of-my-enemy hookups.
Israel would love the relationship to play out officially and in public as a grand sign to the world of its desired acceptance as a sovereign Jewish nation in the heart of the Muslim Middle East.
The Saudi monarchy has a more complex agenda, however.
Whatever its political goals, the Saudi royals also must mollify their nation's ultra-traditional religious establishment, the staunch support of which has allowed the descendants of King Abdulaziz Al Saud to rule over the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula since the nation's founding in 1932.
Saudi Arabia is the cradle of Islam, containing the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. Because of the kingdom's centrality to Islam, religious backing is critical to the ruling family's continued reign.
Problem is, those religious leaders show little willingness to compromise their rigid Wahhabi Muslim theology for the sake of earthly political considerations.
Here's an example of how the game is played.
In July, Anwar Eshki, a retired Saudi army general, led a delegation to Israel where he met in Jerusalem with Israel's Foreign Ministry director-general. Not in an Israeli government building, of course, but in a private hotel -- making it easier for the Saudi side to deny the meeting was a formal inter-government encounter.
But visits by Saudis, ranked or not, to Israel are extraordinarily rare (and vice versa). Moreover, for a Saudi military figure, even a retired one, to do so without his government's quiet okay invites legal prosecution.
Click here for a backgrounder from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on the visit and its significance. The Washington Institute is sympathetic to Israel and the think-tank's scholars are widely published by Israeli and Jewish diaspora news sites, as well as the mainstream media.
Note the writer's conclusion on what might come next in this Israel-Saudi psychodrama.
The next step may well depend on Arab public reaction (or lack thereof) to Eshki's visit. The response has largely been indifferent so far, though it may be too early to judge.
That was written in late July. Since then, there's been plenty of response, much of it highly negative in the Muslim world, and much of it rooted in a little-known Islamic concept all but ignored, by Western journalists, including those on the religion beat.
To explain further, let me turn to Khaled Abu Toameh, a veteran Jerusalem-based, Israeli Arab Muslim journalist also connected to New York's right-of-center Gatestone Institute. Abu Toameh wrote the following last week:
[T]he outrage the Saudi delegation's visit to Israel has triggered throughout the Arab and Islamic countries points to one conclusion: that for many Arabs and Muslims, the conflict with Israel is not about a withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines. Nor is the conflict about Palestinian rights and "normal relations" between Israel and the Arab and Islamic countries.
The first to express outrage over the visit were thousands of Saudis, including top Islamic clerics, who took to social media to express their poison and hatred for Israel and Jews. Many reminded their listeners of fatwas (Islamic religious decrees) banning any form of "normalization" with Israel and Jews, who are referred to as "infidels and polytheists." The fatwas also forbid Muslims from giving up any part of "Muslim-owned" land to non-Muslims.
Did you get that? No giving up of "Muslim-owned land" to non-Muslims.
Many contemporary Western scholars of Islam dismiss that notion -- known in Islam as Dar al-Harb (Territory of War) -- as having no basis in the Quran or the Hadith, the latter the writings that purport to convey the sayings and actions of the Prophet. Instead, they say it was a legal innovation that arose during Islam's later expansion.
Such scholars, including Georgetown University's John L. Esposito in "The Oxford Dictionary of Islam," also say the idea has no relevance in today's world of fragmented nation-states -- that is no relevance outside the extremist realm. They say that when Osama bin Laden invoked reintegration of al-Andalus -- the part of Spain once under Muslim rule -- into the Islamic world few took him seriously.
Be that as it may, there are some Muslims, who I'd classify as extremists, who hold firm to the notion that once land comes under Muslim control it must remain so for all time and that it is incumbent upon Muslims to struggle to get it back.
(Yes, some extremist religious Jews express a similar ethos about what they say the Hebrew Bible maintains was given by God to the Israelites. However, Israeli governments have willingly turned over land to the Palestinians out of political considerations; a critical difference in my view.)
As the entire Middle East was under the control of the Muslim Ottoman Empire from 1259-1924, those same Muslim extremists believe that what is now Israel -- every inch of it -- is rightfully Muslim, and that Israel is but a temporary interloper not to be allowed to remain out of passing political expediency.
Here's one example of that quoted by Abu Toameh:
One of the leading clerics, Dr. Ali Daghi, Secretary-General of the International Muslim Scholars, wrote: "There is a consensus among Muslims, in the past and present, that if an Islamic land is occupied, then its inhabitants must declare jihad until it is liberated from the occupiers."
Abu Toameh provides several similar examples in his essay. If he's correct about the prevalence of such thought you can expect Saudi-Israeli relations to remain maddeningly complicated for the foreseeable future -- Iran notwithstanding.
Recently, some opinion columns have appeared in the tightly government-controlled Saudi news media arguing for greater tolerance toward Jews and Israel, if only to benefit Saudi Arabia. Consider them no more than trial balloons, intended once again to gauge the Saudi religious establishment's reaction.
That's what journalists should watch, because the ultra-cautious Saudi monarchy simply won't risk losing the Wahhabi leadership's support, the loss of which also likely means the end of the monarchy's religious and, thus, it's political legitimacy.