TEL AVIV, Israel, Sept. 25 (UPI) -- Senior Israeli and Saudi Arabian officials reportedly met earlier this month in what could develop into enhanced cooperation among the Jewish state and moderate Arab regimes concerned about Iran's nuclear program and the rise of radical Muslim organizations.
Indications that something was happening between Israel and Saudi Arabia surfaced during the second Lebanon War. Israeli officials talked of signs that moderate Arab governments -- including Saudi Arabia -- wanted them to beat Hezbollah.
In an interview published Friday in Yedioth Aharonot, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he was, "Highly impressed by various moves and statements connected with Saudi Arabia... I am impressed by King Abdallah's intelligence and sense of responsibility."
Are there any secret contacts with Saudi Arabia, reporters asked?
"I don't have to answer every question," Olmert said.
Monday Yedioth Aharonot reported that Olmert had secretly met "a Saudi leader" 10 days ago.
His interlocutor was "from the royal family," it added.
The Ha'aretz newspaper's website quoted unnamed political sources in Jerusalem as initially confirming the main elements of the report. It suggested the Saudi official was Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's former Ambassador to Washington who is now the national security advisor and who was in Jordan at that time.
Olmert's subsequent denials, in an interview to Ynet, Monday, were not very convincing.
"Mr. Prime Minister, what can we say about the meeting with the Saudis?" he was asked.
"Very little," he answered. Little or not, it seemed like a confirmation that a meeting had taken place.
"I did not meet the Saudi king and did not meet any element that should have caused a sensation in the press," Olmert said
An Israeli official told United Press International Jerusalem has been "making efforts" to discuss "the (Muslim)-Shiite threat" and the Saudi's ideas for peace.
The Saudi peace plan, which the Arab League adopted in 2002, calls for an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories it occupied in 1967 in exchange for peace with the Arab countries. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the ideas were dangerous but this attitude seems to have changed.
Olmert's media advisor, Miri Eisin, told UPI the government supports the internationally devised roadmap for peace as "the main" international initiative. However, Israel "is open to initiatives from moderates," she added.
An Israeli official who spoke to UPI on condition of anonymity suggested Eisin's comments were, "Perhaps a desire to give a good feeling...to allude to (the Saudi initiative) in a more positive way than in the past."
"The Saudis are afraid of the Iranian issue no less than we are, and perhaps more," said the former head of the National Security Council, Maj. Gen. in the reserves Giora Eiland.
Prof. Eli Podeh, who heads the Hebrew University's Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern History, noted the Gulf states do not fear an Israeli nuclear attack on them but they are not sure Iran will desist.
Saudi Arabia, which is predominantly Muslim-Sunni, has been following a very tough line against the Muslim-Shiites whom it considers to be "an inferior type of Muslims, if not real heretics," Podeh continued. Muslim-Shiites dominate Iran and southern Iraq. Hezbollah, that the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization, is also Shiite.
Mark Heller, Director of Research at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, noted Israel and Saudi Arabia are "very concerned" that Muslim sub-national groups, such as the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah, would dictate "national security agendas, making decisions about war and peace."
This does not mean that Israel and Saudi Arabia are anyway nearing a peace agreement. That is unlikely as long as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute continues to fester, Heller maintained.
However Arab states want to convene a new Middle East peace conference and Podeh suggested Israel agree to that. It would create a dialogue and bring the moderates forward. At the moment, the radicals set the agenda, he said.
Syrian President Bashar Assad called for peace talks with Israel. In an interview published in the German Der Spiegel Assad argued, "There can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria. The Lebanon and the Palestinian conflicts are inextricably linked with Syria." An agreement should resolve not only the territorial dispute over the Golan Heights but also the refugee issue. Some 500,000 Palestinian refugees live in Syria, he noted.
Syria is," Determined to achieve a comprehensive peaceful solution," Assad said. However, in a remark reminiscent of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's policies, he added: "My hope for peace, could change one day. And when the hope disappears, then maybe war really is the only solution."
Assad's call for peace talks divided Israelis. Olmert doubted the Syrian president's sincerity noting he might have been prompted by fears that the U.N. investigation into the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri would implicate Syria and results be transferred to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Syria continues to support Palestinian terrorist groups "and I do not see in their behavior any sign that could encourage Israel," Olmert said. The United States, too, thinks the Syrians are not serious about peace talks "and there is no reason we should give him (Assad) a benefit... At the moment I do not see him a partner to moves that could lead to negotiations," Olmert told Ynet.
But Education Minister Yuli Tamir countered there is no harm in trying talks. Israel "missed opportunities (and) that cost us dearly," she said.