Analysis: Is Israeli-Saudi peace a realistic proposition?

Israeli leaders have hinted at improving ties with the Saudis and their Gulf neighbors, but the Saudis may be no less devious or subversive than their Iranian rivals.

Netanyahu and Saudi King Salman (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Saudi King Salman
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Like a puzzle composed of only two pieces, two cabinet ministers separately delivered remarks last week, granting the Israeli public an interesting glimpse into the current reality of the balance of power in the Middle East.
First was Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who broadly described the main elements of Iran's intelligence activities in the Middle East during his speech at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday. His remarks included an expression of concern for a third, far-off country, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. "They are trying to create chaos in every place," Liberman said of the Iranians. "And there main target is Saudi Arabia."
Since when does the defense minister of Israel care about the hardships of Saudi Arabia? The answer was provided the next day by Liberman's fellow cabinet member, Intelligence Minister Israel Katz. "Yes, there is cooperation between Israel and these countries, which cannot be discussed in detail," Katz explained. "This cooperation is going to be significantly upgraded, because the US is going to lead it. The first goal is to block Iran and push it out of the area."
The two ministers are correct: Iran's efforts to act against Israel are currently reaching record heights. The Iranians, encouraged by their success in saving the Assad regime in Syria, have declared a quiet war on Israel. Their approach is two-pronged. In Gaza, they are providing Hamas's military wing with weapons and money. On the northern border, they are working tirelessly to fill Hezbollah's weapons warehouses with precision missiles, which are liable to cause battlefield losses for the IDF and the Air Force. More than a decade after the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah is being built into a force that rivals that of a national army.
"There are many things that Israel doesn't know about the abilities of the Resistance," Hezbollah deputy chief Naim Qassem said in a television interview last week. "These abilities are different and better than they were at the time of the Second Lebanon War."
Some two years ago, Iran even tried to set up a military headquarters for actions against Israel on a third front: the Syrian Golan Heights. Senior Iranian officers who traveled close to the Israel-Syria border were killed in an air strike, attributed in foreign reports to Israel. "We have three problems to deal with," Liberman said at the Munich Security Conference, "Iran, Iran and Iran."
Iran has the status of an active enemy in the Israeli public discourse. The Saudis, on the other hand, have taken on a moderate image: the leaders of the good bloc. Riyadh indeed is not a declared enemy of Israel and does not directly support groups that seek to harm the Jewish state. However, presenting the picture as black-and-white is far from accurate.
The Saudi Initiative
The Saudi regime partakes in subversive behavior in the Middle East no less than the Iranians. In Lebanon, they back the Sunnis and their senior representative, Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri, who has Saudi citizenship. They have a say in every important political development in Beirut, no less so than Iran. In Yemen, they have been immersed for the last two years in a bloody war against Shi'ite Houthi militias. It is a battle that is being waged mainly from the air, and often claims innocent civilian victims.
In Iraq, they supported al-Qaida from the beginning - a group established by leftovers from Sadaam Hussein's people and the Ba'ath regime, in an effort to create a counter weight to Iranian influence. The Saudis are also active in Bahrain, where a Sunni monarchy controls a second-class majority Shi'ite population, which constantly challenges the leadership, often with Iranian encouragement. The Saudis provide their ally, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, perpetual aid to deal with Shi'ite opposition, especially of a military and intelligence nature.
However, the greatest portion of the tens of billions of dollars the Saudis spend on their foreign activities has gone in recent years to Syria. Riyadh is actually the main generator of the war to topple Bashar Assad. In the summer of 2011, near the beginning of the civil war, the Saudis decided to topple the Syrian regime, no matter what the consequences would be. In order to do so they funded the founding of loyal militias and factions from among the Syiran population and provided them with weapons and military training.
Saudi intelligence operatives planned and designed the operational policy of their proxies in the fight against Assad. Later, more countries joined the effort to support the rebels, including Qatar, Turkey and the UAE. But the Saudis were the flag-bearers of the operation. If there hadn't been a declaration of war against Damascus from the Sunni coalition, Assad wouldn't have had to defend himself in such an uncompromising manner, and thus the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians who were slaughtered or made refugees would have been spared.
"You brought the whole world to fight in Syria," Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said of the Saudis in a speech two years ago, "only in order to topple Assad and his regime. You destroyed Syria, you killed it, you carried out massacres there and you refuse any diplomatic solution there." In the same speech, he also accused his hated enemy of involvement in post-Sadaam Hussein Iraq: "The ones who sent suicide bombers and funded murderous terror attacks in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, terror attacks that made no distinction between Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Sunnis, Shi'ites or Turkmens - were the Saudi intelligence."
In the critical stages of the war in Syria, it appeared that Riyadh's plan was succeeding, and the Ba'ath regime was collapsing. However, then Iran and Hezbollah came to Assad's defense, shedding blood to protect him, and later the Russians joined the effort, saving Damascus from complete collapse, at least for the time being. Throughout the years, the Saudis and their brothers the Qataris have tried persistently to portray Assad as a tyrant who systematically kills his own people through their control of Arabic-language satellite channels. The tyrannical Syrian regime indeed waged a war of destruction on its citizens, who are split into factions, which also included knocking down whole buildings on top of their inhabitants. However, the media picture presented by the Saudis and Qataris hid their part in the establishing and funding of the rebel groups, which forced Assad to fight without compromise.
The Saudi subversiveness in all of these arenas constitutes a mirror image of the Iranian involvement in terror and its moves to weaken regimes in the region. However, the Saudis are richer than the Iranians, no less devious, and mainly, they enjoy the West's tacit agreement for their actions. They tend to act quietly, by pulling strings from afar and through the use of mercenaries.
There are those in Israel who thought throughout the Syrian Civil War that Israel was gaining from the determined military campaign to oust Assad that was born in Riyadh. Reality has proven otherwise. Israel should be sending flowers to all those involved in saving the regime. If the Gulf states - our friends, according to Minister Katz, right? - succeed in their plan to topple the Damascus government, a second Iraq would come into being on Israel's doorstep. Nobody would prevent ISIS from coming to the northern border in the Golan Heights and attacking Israeli communities from there uninterrupted. Another front would develop similar to that on the border with Sinai.
In addition, the occasional attacks from Israeli ministers on the human rights situation in Iran is an insult to the intelligence of the Israeli listener. We have not yet seen the birth of the Israel minister that truly cares about the situation of Iranian citizens. And if their situation truly pains them, they would be well-served to take note of the poor human rights conditions in Saudi Arabia. A glance in that direction would find a kingdom like that of Louis XIV, which has been run for some nine decades by the same family, which passes the crown from son to son as if the country was its own private estate. It has no elected parliament, but rather a "Council of Ministers," whose members are appointed by the king, and their is no electoral system for choosing the king or the members of the legislature.
Iran is indeed the black sheep of the West, but the bitter truth is that if Saudi citizens could choose - they would be happy to be part of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Netanyahu's experiment
Netanyahu says Arab countries increasingly see Israel as an ally (credit: PMO)
Israel is not only permitted to establish secret contacts with countries that can help it defend itself, it is obligated to do so. It can be assumed that all manner of business can be done with the Saudi regime. However, these contacts should be part of the public discourse in Israel. Not in order to satisfy the curiosity of journalists, but rather, in order to avoid failures and losses like those that happened with Egypt. For four decades Jerusalem acquiesced to Cairo's request to have relations like those of a man and his mistress; these relations never blossomed into a true peace agreement, which would serve as a worthy gift to future generations. Instead they remained a weak alliance. In the moment of truth, they almost collapsed.
With the Saudis it is too soon to discuss peace, but there is no reason that a strong democratic state would in the future have covert relations with a tyrannical regime that needs it. Saudi Arabia is not just an important military and diplomatic power. It is the most seasoned regime in the region, which has been in a fight for survival since its inception. We will never know its full map of strategic interests. You can steal a horse with the Saudis, but they have no problem - at the exact same time - with stealing a horse from your stable.
In one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speeches, while he was running for election for his current term, he explained that Israel is undergoing a revolution in its relations with countries in the region. These regimes, who were always relatively tolerant of Israel, are looking for common interests in a region where everything around them is chaotic.
Not only the common Iranian enemy encourages this, but also two simple human needs: to find someone to lean on in a time of need, and the business potential. Israel is not only a military power, but it is mainly a technological, commercial and diplomatic power. Not only are governments seeking to be close to Israel, but so are Arab politicians who are making their way here secretly, all manner of business people and other individuals. Everyone is looking for what they're missing - from a work permit or refugee status to intelligence cooperation, establishing a base for future relations and billion dollar business deals.
This growing trend which the prime minster and the heads of Israel's defense establishment have seen has brought with it creative thinking. "They always said," Netanyahu explained in his speech, "that the moment we make progress, a breakthrough in the peace process with the Palestinians, we can also make peace with the entire Arab world. But more and more I think that the process can also move in the opposite direction. That the normalization, or advancement of relations with the Arab world, can help us attain a more realistic and stable peace with the Palestinians.
In other words, the prime minister cooked up a path to peace that circumvents Ramallah. It was an interesting test balloon, based on creative thinking and its goal was to rescue Israel from its relative regional isolation and to bring a historic dismantling of the Arab boycott. However, after the prime minister revealed his thinking, Arab capitals, led by Riyadh, rejected the idea. In talks between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Arab leaders, they gave him an insurance policy. "We will not sell you out," they told him, and declared their refusal to make peace with Israel without a solution to the Palestinian problem.
Why doesn't Saudi Arabia, the "moderate" kingdom and the leader of the Sunni world, jump on the enticing offer? The correct question is, why would it jump? Peace with Israel, unfortunately, does not interest the Saudis. Nor does it interest their brothers in the United Arab Emirates. They are concerned by two existential threats. From the outside - Iran, which is close by and dangerous, and from within - extremist Islam. A peace agreement with Israel that does not settle the Palestinians' problems, will give these two enemies the legitimacy to fight against the Saudis. For the Saudis this is not just a headache, but a real danger.
There is also another reason for their refusal to make peace with Jerusalem: the Saudis and their Gulf neighbors are already getting everything they need from Israel - according to foreign reports, of course.
The writer is the Arab affairs correspondent for Army Radio.