Does the Iran deal reveal common ground between Arabs and Israel?
Beirut - The nuclear agreement between Iran and US-led global powers may well be imperfect and have unfortunate consequences as it accelerates a changing political order in the Middle East but it has highlighted one unusual aspect that could have an immense impact on the turbulent region: the common ground between Israel and Saudi Arabian-led Arab states that virulently oppose the landmark deal.
There have been discreet contacts, largely covert, between the Israelis and the Saudis for several years that pointed towards a possible historic realignment in the region. But on July 19th, no less an Israeli insider than Shabtai Shavit, head of the Jewish state’s Mossad foreign intelligence service in 1989- 96, said the agreement has opened the door for Israel to join “a new Middle Eastern order”.
The growing alarm in the Sunni states and Israel about Shia Iran’s expansionist ambitions, which they believe were indirectly endorsed by the United States through the nuclear deal, has given impetus to the concept of an alliance that was once unthinkable, Shavit asserted in a radio interview.
“I believe that in the present time there’s a window of opportunity for Israel to try and pursue a new order in the Middle East,” the former spymaster declared in an interview with US radio broadcaster Aaron Klein. “Iran is considered to be the adversary of all those countries… of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Emirates… We are a member of this same camp.
“We have here a unique opportunity to try and create a coalition of moderate Arab states, headed by Saudi Arabia, and Israel, both in order to address the Iranian potential nuclear capability in the future and also to create a new order in the Middle East.”
It seems the July 14th agreement and the deep-rooted shared distrust of the Shia clerical regime in Tehran, the successors of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his austere, single-minded commitment to Islamic supremacy, are bonds that could unite these long-time foes.
Almost as an added inducement, Shavit dropped strong hints that a new alliance that sets aside a century of conflict could bring about a settlement to the Palestinian question, the core issue of that conflict.
Israel already has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan but it has no diplomatic links with other Arab states. Even so, Shavit stressed, “I believe that having the moderate Sunni states… involved in an Israeli-Palestinian political solution they’re in a position to contribute a lot to achieve this objective.”
Soon after the state of Israel was proclaimed in May 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sought to establish covert links with regional partners in the Middle East and Africa to neutralise the “Arab core”, then led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt.
This was the so-called periphery doctrine that at one time or another included Turkey, pre-Khomeini Iran, Sudan, Morocco and Ethiopia along with Lebanon’s Maronites and Iraq’s rebellious Kurds.
Over the years, these discreet relationships have frayed. Israel has continued to seek other alliances of convenience but with little success. Adrift after the messy break-up of its important alliance with Turkey in 2010 and the political convulsions of the “Arab spring” in 2011, Israeli leaders had to rethink the country’ strategic options and find new partners to help them ride out the storms engulfing the region.
Now US President Barack Obama, in what may prove to be yet another unexpected consequence of American misadventures in the Middle East, such as the murderous fallout from George W. Bush’s absurd and apocalyptic invasion of Iraq in 2003, has provided the spur for a new and more concrete association, a strategic partnership that could truly change the regional order that Israel and Saudi Arabia believe has shifted in Iran’s favour.
There has been other evidence that events could be moving towards closer relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Since coming to the throne King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud has shaken up the ossifying Saudi power structure and cast aside the kingdom’s long-time policy of caution to initiate a more muscular assertiveness.
On June 4th, the incoming director-general of Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, Dore Gold, who is close to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and Anwar Majed Eshkie, a former major-general in the Saudi Armed Forces, jointly announced their co-operation in opposing Iran.
They made the announcement together at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think-tank, the fifth such meeting by the two officials. Although both men denied that they represented their governments, their status and willingness to meet in the open indicated their countries’ willingness to find common cause against the Islamic Republic.
It also moved these contacts from covert discussions between intelligence chiefs into the public domain, a clear signal that both governments were prepared to openly identify their common interests.