How important is Saudi-Israeli track-two diplomacy?

In a dramatic event in Washington on Thursday, a former Saudi official and an incoming Israeli official revealed that they had led a series of track-two meetings between Israelis and Saudis to discuss regional security and especially the challenge of Iran.

Track-two diplomacy involves discussion of policy challenges by non-officials, often academics and think-tank experts; while governments don’t participate, they are often closely aware of the content of such discussions and make use of the outcomes in their formal diplomacy. As such, track-two efforts are often employed in situations where the countries concerned have no formal diplomatic relations, but can also be used to test ideas and develop proposals outside formal negotiations, even when a formal negotiating process is already underway. Indeed, the Israeli-PLO Oslo Declaration itself was the result of a track-two process launched by two Israeli academics, Yair Hirschfeld and the late Ron Pundak, while the formal Madrid talks were ongoing.

The Oslo example illustrates the great value of track-two diplomacy: away from the glare of media coverage and free from the constraints of politics and public opinion, negotiators can grow closer in mutual understanding and explore creative ideas to bridge gaps and achieve agreement. But track-two diplomacy has limits, too, and these are worth bearing in mind as we process this public revelation of Israeli-Saudi talks. Those limits derive from the fact that, to be successful, track-two understandings must ultimately emerge from the shadows and withstand the force of domestic politics, public opinion, and media spotlights.

Dore Gold, the Israeli partner in the latest talks, is about to become the director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, suggesting direct impact on official policy making. But even a very high-level track-two dialogue can only take you so far. At some point the results of any insights or understandings in a track-two process must be integrated into official policy by the governments concerned. While track-two participants are, by design, insulated from political constraints and do not face public accountability for their ideas, policy makers obviously are and do. It’s therefore unsurprising that many track-two results do not get adopted in real life. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been resolved in track-two settings multiple times, most notably in the so-called Geneva Initiative — but political leaders who have to own the consequences have yet to embrace the model peace agreement it achieved.

It’s clear that Dore Gold and Anwar Eshki’s dialogue did not achieve anything as ambitious as a joint document or even a joint vision for regional affairs. It’s worth asking, then, why they chose to reveal now a dialogue that’s been proceeding quietly for eighteen months. Certainly, understanding better one another’s views and concerns is of great value in a case where formal diplomatic dialogue has long been missing, and Israelis and Saudis have not shared a serious diplomatic table since the multilateral regional meetings associated with the Madrid peace process of 1991 broke down in 2000. But we shouldn’t overstate the novelty of Israeli-Saudi engagement — since the 1960s, the two sides have found ways to communicate and even cooperate when facing shared regional challenges. Then it was Egypt’s Nasser; today it’s Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Indeed, from the perspective of Israeli-Arab cooperation, this track-two outcome might appear to arrive a particularly inopportune time. Israel and Gaza-based militants are trading blows, raising the fearsome prospect of another Gaza war with attendant horrific humanitarian consequences. Arab governments see little hope for diplomatic progress from newly reelected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and this raises the costs to them of being seen to treat with Israel.

So why expose this track-two now, when it hasn’t produced results and it doesn’t fall in a congenial regional context? In his account of the dialogue, reporter Eli Lake focuses on the frustration both Jerusalem and Riyadh feel with American-Iranian diplomacy, and suggests that Obama’s inattention to his allies’ anxieties may paradoxically have brought them together for the sake of mutual self-help. I have no doubt that’s part of the motive, but a closer look suggests some more answers.

For Israel’s newly-reelected prime minister, local politics may add to the value of revealing this dialogue publicly just as his right-wing government embarks on its new term in office. Netanyahu has made the case to Israelis that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is not a partner for peace, but he can’t afford to have no approach to the crises taking place all around Israel. Demonstrating effective outreach to the Arab world raises hopes amongst Israelis for the end of their regional isolation, and puts greater pressure on Abbas, by demonstrating that the Arab states are willing to move forward with Israel despite his own frustrations with Netanyahu and his turn away from negotiations and toward unilateral measures.

On the Saudi side, it’s worth noting that General Eshki was an advisor to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, once the Kingdom’s preeminent regional strategist but now, apparently, marginalized in favor of newly elevated Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef. Eshki also was an aide to King Faisal, whose son, Prince Turki bin Faisal, had his own public dialogue with an Israeli security expert and whose other son was the Kingdom’s longtime foreign minister until this year. Prince Saud bin Faisal, of course, was relieved of duty after the accession of King Salman and replaced with a non-royal, Adel al-Jubeir, who had previously replaced Bandar bin Sultan as the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

These affiliations suggest a possibility that, at least on the Saudi side, the dialogue was revealed because it’s no longer impactful. The engagement with Israel might have been more an initiative of the previous regime, which has now been supplanted through a series of swift policy and personnel changes by the new king. There would thus be little reason for the Saudis involved to continue to keep the channel secret, and perhaps some hope that revealing it will increase pressure on their new leadership to explore some of the ideas the track-two dialogue produced.

Whatever else this dialogue and its revelation teaches us, it’s clear that Middle Eastern allies’ anxieties about Iran, and their frustration with Washington over Iran policy, are largely unabated despite intense efforts by the White House to bridge gaps. Revealing this dialogue, particularly at an event in Washington, is among other things a means for Saudis and Israelis to emphasize to the White House that they have alternatives in the region to dependence on the United States.