Wahington pushes for closer Saudi-Israeli stance on key regional challenges
Beirut- On November 6, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made an unexpected trip to Riyadh to meet King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. In recent weeks the crown prince has become the de facto power in the kingdom, introducing radical policy changes, including what appears to be a dramatic, though largely behind-the-scenes, shift towards Israel as a partner against their common enemy Iran.
Little has been said of what transpired in Riyadh. But speculation has been rife in the Middle East and Washington that the Saudis could have pressed Abbas to accept whatever plan the US Trump administration comes up with.
That squared with Riyadh’s action in forcing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to move against Hezbollah, the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon.
Hariri resigned, saying he feared an assassination plot. His father, former premier Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in February 2005. Five members of Hezbollah have been indicted by a UN-mandated special tribunal in The Netherlands in his murder.
A few days before Abbas’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and his Middle East envoy, spent four days in Riyadh discussing a new regional peace initiative reportedly involving Saudi Arabia and Israel.
On November 16, Israel’s military chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot, gave an interview to the Saudi-owned online newspaper Elaph in his Tel Aviv office and declared he was prepared to share military intelligence on Iran with Saudi Arabia and other “moderate” Arab states — a startling statement from Israel’s top soldier that underlines just how times are changing in the region.
On November 19, Israel’s energy minister, Yuval Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet and a former strategic affairs minister, said the Jewish state has “partly covert” links with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, particularly because of Iran’s expansionist ambitions and efforts by these states to mobilise the Americans against the Islamic Republic.
The Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, told Egypt’s CBC television on November 22: “There are no relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. There is an Arab peace initiative, which shows the roadmap to reach peace and establish normal relations between Israel and the Arab states.”
Even so, these events have confirmed speculation that the Saudis, leaders of Islam’s dominant Sunni faith, and Israel have moved closer after 70 turbulent years, largely because both are deeply alarmed about Iran’s growing influence across the region using the Revolutionary Guards and armed proxies.
This is part of a regional pattern of shifting alliances since the “Arab spring” upheavals of 2010-2011.
Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington observed that Steinitz’s remarks “won’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to the budding courtship between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which is being pushed especially by the Israeli side.”
But the fact remains that the force behind the Saudi-Israeli initiative, Crown Prince Mohammed, is under growing pressure because of the radical shifts in Riyadh’s policies that he has introduced in recent months, not always successfully.
The tempo of these changes is clearly accelerating, with the Trump administration pressing all parties concerned to join forces and take military action, presumably with US support, against the Islamic Republic and its allies.
This is being viewed as potentially dangerous for the kingdom and the region as a whole as it grapples with wall-to-wall conflicts and a geopolitical landscape undergoing profound change, possibly even disintegration.
“Saudi Arabia is under pressure not just from Iran’s ambitions, but also from falling oil revenues, shrinking national wealth and mounting demands for reform,” one commentator observed.
Eisenkot in his interview accused the Islamic Republic of “seeking to take control of the Middle East, creating a (Shia) crescent from Lebanon to Iran and then from the Gulf to the Red Sea… We must prevent this from happening.
“In this matter, there is complete agreement between us and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has never been our enemy. It has not fought us and nor have we fought it.”
That sort of arrangement would mark a major win for Israel and Saudi Arabia, as the kingdom embarks on a new era under Crown Prince Mohammed, who has overturned collegial rule by the House of Saud into what has all the trappings of one-man rule and an abrupt epochal change.
But as the details of the anti-Iran alliance slowly emerge, it seems the whole structure depends on the US intervening in force militarily. Even together, Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have the firepower to overwhelm the Iranians on their own.
Eisenkot’s interview and other recent instances of reaching out to the Arab world after decades of conflict demonstrate how Israel’s diplomatic and security-related priorities in regional affairs are opening up new geostrategic opportunities.
“The main thing Israel stands to gain is tighter unofficial relations with Saudi Arabia,” military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai wrote on Ynet, the online English version of Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
“Crown Prince (Mohammed) bin Salman basically owes Israel and (Eisenkot) for their swift help in confirming the claims against Iran and Hezbollah, and for the indirect aid they are offering him in his relations with President Trump and with the Europeans concerning the Middle East,” he wrote on November 19.
Some analysts interpreted Eisenkot’s comments, clearly approved by Netanyahu’s security cabinet, as an appeal by Israel to Saudi Arabia for joint action against Tehran delivered by Israel’s top military commander.
Trump wants to see Israel and Saudi Arabia, key US allies in the Middle East, join forces against Iran and some analysts suspect that recent disclosures on the growing links between the two regional powers may be connected to recent visits to both countries’ capitals by Kushner.
Eisenkot said Trump’s presidency has created “an opportunity to build a new international coalition in the region.”
Saudi Arabia and Israel have reportedly for years had covert intelligence links, with senior officials meeting in Jordan, London and other countries. Now they meet in public. But none of this suggests that a historic breakthrough is just around the corner.
Fifty years after the 1967 Middle East war, which transformed Israel into a regional superpower, the Middle East is a different place. In the wake of the “Arab spring,” younger, more pragmatic voices are heard in politics as the Arabs’ brittle world undergoes profound change.
Saudi Arabia and Israel may be moving closer to counter Iran, but they are hardly allies. They will not be able to establish diplomatic relations until the Palestinian issue, a central role in the region’s geopolitics for decades has been settled once and for all. And that will not be easy.
The kingdom’s elite may be willing to cooperate with Israel against Iran, but the Saudi man in the street, like his Arab brethren, still bitterly opposes Israel for occupying Arab land in 1967 and will not accept any deal that excludes the return of the West Bank as a Palestinian homeland.
Any move by Crown Prince Mohammed to consolidate the moves towards an alliance with Israel could trigger a backlash against his rule in a country that remains essentially a confederation of traditionally inclined tribes, and in Arab eyes could delegitimise Saudi Arabia’s position as leader of the Arab world.
Riyadh sees an opportunity to press Israel on the Arab Peace Initiative it sponsored in 2002 and that was approved by the Arab League and rejected by Israel. That provides for Arab states normalising relations with Israel in return for withdrawing from territory occupied in 1967.
Right now, that would be political suicide for Netanyahu and Israel’s rightists.
As for Crown Prince Mohammed, a unilateral move without Palestinian approval could trigger a backlash in a region torn by war and drifting towards disintegration.