Jerusalem-Riyadh: The Hush-Hush Accord

Common ground between Saudi Arabia and Israel was restricted, until quite recently, to the problem of Iran’s obvious dash towards nuclear weapons capability.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Prince Salman 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Prince Salman 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Two states more disparate than Israel and Saudi Arabia would be difficult to envisage. Differing in almost every characteristic – political, religious, cultural, demographic – they nevertheless have one thing in common. Both have enjoyed a close rapport with the United States. 
The special relationship with Israel has been a central plank in US foreign policy virtually since Israel came into being.  As for Saudi Arabia, since the first Gulf War in 1990 it has come to be regarded as “America’s other Middle East ally.” The one great blip in US-Saudi relations – the discovery that 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers who attacked the US on 9/11 were Saudis – has been overcome. Saudi Arabia’s determined anti-terrorism policies have strongly rebuilt its ties with the US.  Saudi is America’s largest trade partner in the Middle East, way ahead of Israel at number two.  In maintaining these twin alliances America has had to indulge in a delicate balancing act, for Israel and Saudi Arabia have historically had no formal diplomatic relations. More than that, Saudi operates an economic boycott against Israel and, as Daniel Pipes recently pointed out, the US signed, and abides by, a protocol prohibiting Jews being assigned to  the Kingdom.
So common ground between Saudi Arabia and Israel was restricted, until quite recently, to the problem of Iran’s obvious dash towards nuclear weapons capability. Both Israel and the majority of the Sunni Muslim world, of whose interests Saudi Arabia considers itself the guardian, regarded Iran’s ambitions with alarm. Shi’ite Iran was actively arming, funding and supporting terrorism and seeking to undermine stable Arab governments, clearly aiming at hegemony over the Arab world in general and the Gulf States in particular. As regards Israel, Iran’s leaders had more than once declared that they wished to see it destroyed – an aspiration that may not particularly worry much of Islam, though it certainly concerned Israel.
Until the Iranian presidential elections in mid-2013, Saudi Arabia seemed reasonably confident in the will of the US to halt Iran in its tracks when it became obvious that the nuclear build-up had over-stepped the acceptable. The Wikileaks documents released to the world in 2010 showed quite clearly that fear of Iran’s intentions ran deep among Arab leaders, and that many were urging Washington to act before it was too late. Not only did no action from the US materialize, but it became clear that intense pressure had been applied by Washington on Israel to prevent it from acting either.
The suspicion that the Obama administration was lily-livered on this issue could only have been confirmed by the way the West, including the USA, responded to Iran’s clear tactical U-turn following the election of the so-called moderate Hassan Rouhani as president. Rouhani’s sweet talk about Iran’s willingness to negotiate (perhaps already preceded by a US-Russia-Iran agreement, according to some reports), matched by the UN’s eagerness to accept his assurances at face value, sent shivers of alarm through the corridors of power in both Riyadh and Jerusalem.
Saudi’s growing disillusionment with the US goes back to President Barack Obama’s apparent support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s civil upheaval, his failure to support General Sisi’s interim government, and his cutting off of a substantial tranche of military funding. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which have more than made good the shortfall, perceive Obama to be bolstering extremists seeking to destabilise “moderate” Arab governments.
Obama’s failure to act in the Syrian conflict against the Assad régime, supported as it is by Iran and Iran’s satellite fighting force Hezbollah, was a further cause of disillusion on the part of Saudi Arabia. Their disenchantment with the US was finally confirmed by Obama’s approach to Assad’s horrific chemical attack of August 2013 against both opposition forces and any civilians who happened to get in the way. All Obama’s threats to take military action in such an eventuality came to nothing. Through the good offices of Russia, Assad’s chemical stockpile is indeed being destroyed – but Assad himself remains in power, perhaps as a quid pro quo, and the Shi’ite crescent, which includes Iran and Hezbollah, is, if anything, strengthened.
Israel too, while studiously keeping clear of the civil conflict in Syria, has been only too well aware of the Iranian-Hezbollah connection, and – without acknowledging it – is generally held to have ensured that advanced weaponry shipped to Syria for onward transmission to Hezbollah never reached its destination.  RT is the first Russian 24-hour English-language TV news channel. Their website recently reported: “Israel and Saudi Arabia, who don’t have diplomatic relations, are rumored to be creating an alliance, which may well become the region’s new ‘super power.’ Despite their differences,” says RT, “Israel and Saudi Arabia share views on some of the most pressing regional issues, as they both want régime change in Syria, with Saudi Arabia strongly backing the rebels; both see Iran as their main geopolitical rival and want to neutralize the Islamic state; and both stand united in their backing of the military government in Egypt, which has taken a strong stance against the Islamists.”
Investigative journalist Robert Parry told RT that although neither Saudi Arabia nor Israel is picking an open fight with Big Brother, “if the two of them were to collaborate more formally on some of these issues like Syria, Iran or Egypt, that could put the US in a position of not being able to work its will with quite the freedom that it has in the past.”
This may explain the latest flying visit to the Middle East by US Secretary of State, John Kerry. He made straight for Cairo on November 3, pledged wholesale support for the Egyptian people’s struggle for democracy, neatly side-stepped questions about Washington’s decimation of its military aid to the interim government, and departed immediately for Riyadh to mend fences with Saudi Arabia.
Kerry said that this latest mission is at the direct behest of President Obama. It seems clear that Washington is becoming concerned at reports that Israel has been holding a series of meetings with prominent figures from a number of Gulf and other Arab states, under the direct supervision of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. 
On October 1, Netanyahu addressed the 68th session of the UN General Assembly. One passage in his speech has not been widely reported. Shared concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, he said, “have led many of our Arab neighbors to recognize that Israel is not their enemy,” and created an opportunity to “build new relationships.”
Building seems to have started.
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (