John Kerry (L) walks with Saudi Arabia's FM Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud before meeting with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in Diriyah.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As far as silver linings go, it would be nice if Israel could get something out of the Iran crisis. Recognition from Saudi Arabia would be very good for Israel, and for Saudi Arabia and the entire non-radical Middle East. And right now, is appears that formal Jerusalem-Riyadh ties aren’t totally outside the realm of possibility.
There are guardedly friendly murmurs from the Saudis.
Obviously, this isn’t the first time Israel and Saudi Arabia have had common interests – but (obviously) it’s very unusual to hear the Saudis say so publicly. On March 2 – according to MEMRI – Saudi columnist Dr. Ahmad al-Faraj wrote that, “Since [Obama] is the ally of political Islam, the caring mother of [all] terrorist organizations, and since he is working to sign an agreement with Iran that will come at the expense of the US’s longtime allies in the Gulf, I am very glad of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s firm stance and [his decision] to speak against the nuclear agreement at the American Congress... I believe Netanyahu’s conduct will serve our interests, the people of the Gulf, much more than the foolish behavior of one of the worst American presidents.”
According to a report from Channel 2, Saudi officials have told European diplomats that they’re willing to let Israel use Saudi air space in exchange for peace process progress – something they say would give them “legitimacy” to work with Jerusalem.
In all probability, that’s a PR position: under no circumstances would Saudi Arabia pass up a chance to have Israel attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
Certainly not for the sake of the Palestinians.
But the idea of Saudi-Israel relations gaining legitimacy through Palestinian progress may, nonetheless, be a realistic one.
The Saudis have a lot to gain from ties with Israel – mainly technology: in computing, weaponry, space, desalination, irrigation and so on. And though there was plenty of Saudi condemnation of Israel during its most recent war with Gaza, a number of prominent Saudis – including king Abdullah – pointedly refused to blame the war entirely on Israel. Former head of Saudi intelligence Turki al-Faisal went so far as to say “Hamas is responsible for the slaughter in the Gaza Strip.”
It appears that, pan-Arabism not withstanding, Saudi Arabia is tired of subordinating its national interest to the aspirations of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. If that’s the case, Israel has to ask itself: what “legitimizing” gesture would – without endangering Israel – be grand enough to satisfy the Saudis? A possible answer: Provisional Gazan independence, and an end to the Israeli blockade. Bear with me.
Like Saudi Arabia, Egypt hates Hamas – and is very active in fighting the local Hamasniks, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. So far, Egyptian President Abdel Sisi has pulled no punches in quelling domestic terrorists – in the past year, a reported 1,500 Muslim Brothers were killed by Egyptian forces, and another 15,000 arrested. Sisi blames the Brotherhood for radicalizing Egyptian Islam, and like selected Saudis, Egypt blames Hamas for the Gaza war. Under Sisi, Egypt has dealt decisively with Hamas – and could deal decisively with Hamas in Gaza. So: Replace an Israeli blockade with provisional Egyptian stewardship of the Gaza strip, paid for by Israel. For a course of, say, 10 years, Egypt would be responsible for keeping weapons out of Gaza, and keeping Hamas from attacking Israel. When Gaza succeeds in attack Israel, Egypt, rather than the IDF, will invade. And not being the international bête noire that Israel is, Egypt would be freer in fighting the terrorists therein.
After 10 years, if X and Y conditions have been met, Israel and Egypt would jointly sign off on the creation of an independent, blockade-free Gazan state. If X and Y don’t come to pass, the blockade could be reimposed, or Egyptian supervision could continue.
Fine. But in the meantime, Israel would have taken a big step toward final settlement of part of the Palestinian issue. A step for which Saudi Arabia could take credit, in exchange for recognition of Israel.
The Saudis could very plausibly address the Arab street (at home and abroad) and say, we – in exchange for joining Egypt and Jordan in recognizing Israel – have extracted a tremendous concession from Israel, a concrete plan for an independent Gaza. And then it could follow India and China into the Israeli tech and arms market. And it could follow Jordan under the unofficial blanket of Israeli defense – from Iran, from Islamic State, from internal radicals, from whatever comes next.
It’s a long shot. But it’s worth considering.
The author is a columnist for National Review Online, and has written about geopolitics for publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard.