In the Middle East, a tale of two bridges

Israel is working to prevent a Shi’ite corridor in the region, while building links with Sunni Arab states.

Iranian demonstrators burn a structure displaying the flags of the US, Britain, and Israel during a rally marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Tehran in 2015; the green banner reads ‘Saud family’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian demonstrators burn a structure displaying the flags of the US, Britain, and Israel during a rally marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Tehran in 2015; the green banner reads ‘Saud family’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
TWO LAND corridors preoccupy the minds of Israeli leaders and military chiefs. One is a source of concern; the other is a source of hope – both are connected and derive from the same strategy, which brings Israel closer to Saudi Arabia.
The first land corridor, the one which worries Israel, is what it calls the “Shi’ite Crescent.”
It has come about through Iranian efforts to take advantage of the civil wars in Syria and Iraq. Tehran aspires to establish direct land links from Iran, via Shi’ite-controlled areas in Iraq, to Syria and then on to Hezbollah, its ally in Lebanon, thereby giving it a foothold on the Mediterranean.
As reported in my last column, Israel strongly opposes the Iranian drive to increase its influence in Syria and its aspirations for regional hegemony. Israel is concerned especially about any direct or indirect Iranian presence via its Shi’ite proxies, including Hezbollah, near its border with Syria on the Golan Heights.
Just recently, Israeli leaders and military chiefs have embarked on an intensive campaign to influence the outcome of the Syrian conflict in general. More particularly, they are concerned about how events will unfold on Israel’s doorstep in southern Syria. These concerns have filtered their way into the summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned Putin a few days before the summit and emphasized that Israel will not tolerate Iranian efforts to carve out a sphere of influence near the Israeli border. He also pushed for a buffer zone or “secured” area on the Syrian side of the border.
To back up the Israeli position, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman also hinted – even threatened – that Israel “would know how to defend its national interests.”
Iran is a foe of both Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Based on the old dictum that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” both countries have increased their contacts with each other, although most of them are secret and under the radar. But such contacts lie behind the origin of the second corridor.
Officially, Israel and Saudi Arabia are still at war. Along with other Arab nations, Saudi Arabia sent a small military contingent to fight Israel in 1948 and 1967. It declared an oil boycott on the US and European countries in 1973, in solidarity with Egypt and Syria when they fought Israel.
Saudi Arabia, according to Israeli law, is defined as “an enemy state.” But since 1981, Saudi Arabia’s kings and crown princes have increased their involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace efforts. They have issued several plans to solve the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
The Arab League initiative, also known as the “Saudi Initiative,” was adopted in 2002 and reconfirmed at another Arab League Summit meeting in 2007.
The initiative calls for normal relations between the Arab world and Israel, in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel from the occupied territories, including east Jerusalem.
It also suggests a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem, based on UN Resolution 194, which dates from 1948.
SINCE THEN, ties between the two countries have evolved around shared interests, especially during the past two decades. In particular, both want to stop Tehran’s efforts to produce a nuclear bomb, as well as its ambitions for regional hegemony, as reflected in its direct – and indirect – involvement in the wars in Iraq, Yemen and Syria.
As a result of this shared strategic outlook, Israeli officials, and military and intelligence chiefs have occasionally met with their Saudi counterparts.
There are reports that Mossad chiefs have met with the heads of Saudi intelligence agencies and the chiefs of the Saudi National Security Council.
It was also reported that former prime minister Ehud Olmert met with Prince Bandar bin Sultan when he was the Saudi intelligence chief and, at the same time, the head of the Saudi National Security Council.
Meir Dagan, when he was head of Mossad from 2002 until 2010, discussed with Riyadh the possibility of Saudi Arabia granting Israeli planes access to its airspace, should Jerusalem wish to attack Iran’s nuclear sites.
All these meetings and encounters are top secret: Israeli officials know that any confirmation would be highly embarrassing to the House of Saud.
From Netanyahu down, there is only general and vague talk about growing shared interests with the “Sunni world.” But every expert and observer knows that such words are a coded reference to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and even Qatar (which is currently embroiled in disputes with Gulf neighbors and Saudi Arabia).
Every now and then, an aside throws some light on the situation. During his visit to Poland on June 28, Yariv Levin, Israel’s tourism minister, said he had asked the US to facilitate talks between his ministry and several Gulf states.
It’s here we arrive at the other land corridor: railroads linking Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, via Jordan, to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and UAE.
Israel has 60 km of railroad from the port of Haifa to Beit She’an in the Jordan Valley.
It plans to add two extensions. One line (10 km long) would go to territories controlled by the PA, and another line (12 km long) would extend to the Jordanian border crossing. This would allow goods to be ferried by train, not trucks, to and from the PA and Jordan.
The next stage, according to the Israeli plan, is that Jordan would build its own track extension to the Israeli rail line.
From there, the rail routes would then head for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates.
Israeli and Jordanian officials talked about the idea three years ago and recently renewed their discussions about the proposed links.
A document titled “Tracks for regional peace,” issued by the Transportation and Intelligence ministries, both of which are headed by Israel Katz, describes Israel as a “land bridge” and Jordan as a “hub.”
It says “the initiative will contribute to Israel’s economy and strengthen Jordan’s and the Palestinians’ stressed economies” and “will connect Israel to the region and consolidate the pragmatic camp vis-à-vis Iran and the Shi’ite axis.”
THE REGIONAL partnership is necessary, the document says, because “fighting in Syria and Iraq has degraded and blocked land transportation routes.” It also emphasizes Israel’s potential as a “land bridge,” providing access to the Mediterranean.
“This is especially necessary, says Haggai Tzuriel, director general of the Intelligence Ministry,” as Tehran’s expansionist policy poses a “threat to sea routes” in the Straits of Hormuz, the Red Sea and Bab-el-Mandeb, which Iran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen aspire to control.
Yet business ties between the two sides are already flourishing, regardless of whether or not the Israeli-Sunni corridor becomes a reality.
Israel sells agricultural products, as well as cyber and homeland security technologies to Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (the largest market and recipient is Abu Dhabi).
Most of the deals are made via a third party such as Jordan, Kurdistan or Cyprus, but some are negotiated directly.
Occasionally products from Saudi Arabia’s petrochemical industry, such as raw materials, are shipped via Jordan and Israel to Europe. It was also reported that Saudi oil was transported by sea to the port of Eilat and via a land pipe to the Mediterranean to Europe.
Recently, it was suggested that El Al flights, Israel’s national airline, would be allowed to cross Saudi airspace on routes to India and the Far East.
But such a notion is premature. Saudi Arabia, as a guardian of the sacred sites of Islam, would have difficulty selling the idea to its public, especially in the absence of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front. It is more likely that Saudi Arabia may permit Air India to cross its air space on routes to and from Israel.
Ties between the Islamic kingdom and the Jewish state are perhaps best characterized by a quote from the essayist Charles Dudley Warner about the weather. “It is a matter about which a great deal is said, but very little done.”