A Saudi delegation greeting US Secretary of Defense Hagel..
(photo credit: REUTER)
Since the interim deal with Iran was signed last month, there has been a host of
commentaries suggesting that a rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia
should be underway.
As is the case with alliances, it is generally the
hate rather than love for the same things that make then endure. Both countries
are eager to prevent Iran from achieving military nuclear capability and seek to
curb Iranian attempts to attain regional hegemony.
Both also interpret US
reluctance to use force as a sign of a gradual US shift away from the Middle
East, and as a result they question, perhaps more than ever, America’s
commitment to their security.
However, Israel would do well to distance
itself as much as possible from initiatives to form a common front with Saudi
Arabia against the Obama administration.
Even the perception that there
is such a united front could harm relations with Israel’s primary ally, which in
any case are in a sensitive period.
Also, a growing threat from Iran will
not make it easier for Saudi Arabia and Israel to cooperate.
interests do not denote an identical view of the strategic environment. Thus,
for example, the agreement with Iran and the fear of the Islamic Republic could
lead Saudi Arabia, for lack of any other option, to hedge closer to Iran in a
measured fashion, and later, to be more vocal about the Israeli nuclear issue,
since “if Iran, then why not Israel?” Moreover, any attempt to change the
relations from covert to overt could damage them.
So far Riyadh has
refused to comply with the US request for confidence building measures toward
Israel in order to create a supportive regional atmosphere for the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the kingdom has even pressured the small
monarchies to follow suit.
At the same time, however, WikiLeaks documents
indicate an “ongoing and secret dialogue” on the Iranian issue between Israel
and some of the Gulf States. Senior officials from both sides have held ongoing
meetings. Israel has softened its policy on weapons exports to the Gulf States
as well as its attempts to restrict sales of advanced weapons by the US to the
Gulf, in part as a signal that it sees a potential for partnership more than a
The Saudis recognize Israel’s military power as well as
its close ties with the United States (and its influence in Congress), and they
see the value in maintaining some level of coordination with it.
the cost of open relations with Israel at this time may be higher than the
benefit in Saudi eyes, given the position of the Arab street, which rejects
recognition of Israel and relations with it. The Arab monarchies are currently
benefiting from the fact that covert, unofficial relations allow them to enjoy
the advantages of ties with Israel without having to pay a price in public
opinion, which has become more vocal since the outbreak of the “Arab
Additionally, common interests are not common values. To a
certain extent, covert relations are also more comfortable for Israel: Israel as
such need not confront the moral aspects of ties with absolutist monarchies, and
can even present Saudi hostility as another barrier to the confidence building
that is essential to promoting the peace process and producing the fruits of
In addition, Saudi Arabia may hope for an Israeli strike against
Iran’s nuclear infrastructures, but it harbors reservations about any appearance
of operational cooperation with Israel, lest it be required to pay the price for
an Israeli attack.
The basis for understandings between Israel and Saudi
Arabia has expanded following the interim nuclear agreement signed by the major
powers and Iran, which was not viewed positively in Israel or Saudi Arabia, and
the agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons, which gave legitimacy and
precious time to the Bashar Assad regime.
In spite of the convergence of
interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia, full normalization is not on the
agenda as long as there is no significant political breakthrough between Israel
and the Palestinians. At the same time, there is a wide range between full
diplomatic relations and a total lack of contact, and the two countries can take
advantage of this. These common interests won’t lead to normalization but can
strengthen the covert coordination and the understandings between
The author, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv University’s institute for
national security studies, served on Israel National Security Council until