The Israel-Sunni alliance

Although discreet ties have developed, they are unlikely to be formalized without progress on the Palestinian track.

Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former head of Saudi intelligence (photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former head of Saudi intelligence
(photo credit: REUTERS)
AN INTERESTING notion has been introduced to Israel’s public discourse over recent years. It states that Israel has managed to develop unprecedented relations with the Arab Sunni states. And when Israelis talk about “the Sunni world,” they are mostly referring to Saudi Arabia. The main broadcaster of this message is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wishes to create the impression that Israel's international status has never been better. It is clear, of course, that Netanyahu and his advisers are on a self-promoting campaign to glorify his government's achievements.
Behind this open message there is a deeper, hidden agenda. It wants to inform the Israeli public that despite the conflict with the Palestinians, the occupation and the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Israel benefits from excellent ties with the world, in general, and the Arab world, in particular. Thus, Israel doesn’t need to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority or pursue a peace treaty with it. Netanyahu and most of his right-wing cabinet ministers believe that they can maintain the status quo from now to eternity – and even erode it by building more settlements and annexing chunks of the West Bank.
Indeed, Israel has managed to make open and clandestine inroads into some Sunni nations. It has peace treaties and diplomatic relations with both Jordan and Egypt, and a small volume of trade with them. The Israeli military and security establishment, including the intelligence community, also maintains ties with some Persian Gulf emirates (Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Oman) and even sells them security equipment, according to foreign reports.
In the Middle East media – social and mainstream – persistent reports continue to suggest that Israel has improved relations of all sorts with the Saudi kingdom, including sales of intelligence and homeland security equipment as well as high-level meetings of officials in the two countries. But rumors claiming that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman recently visited Israel were denied by Saudi officials and media.
Nevertheless, foreign reports from recent years said that successive heads of Mossad met with their Saudi counterparts, and that even Ehud Olmert, who served as prime minister from 2006-2009, met with the head of Saudi intelligence and former ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
Israel and Saudi Arabia share at least one common interest: both perceive Iran and its allies and proxies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, as their most vicious enemies.
No wonder that during the new Lebanese crisis, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of inciting Israel to wage a war against his movement.
Israel is closely following the dramatic events in Lebanon. They are a result of the Sunni-Shi’ite schism and the Iran-Saudi rift, and have ramifications for the entire region, including Israel – although as an observer, not a participant.
For Israel’s political and military echelons, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation earlier this month is an internal event, and they have neither plans nor aspirations to intervene. Burnt twice in the wars of 1982 and 2006, Israel’s military chiefs and its political leaders want to avoid repeating their past mistakes. After trying – and failing – to control Christian Maronite leader Bashir Gemayel, who was elected as Lebanon's president in 1982 but assassinated soon after by the Syrians, before he took office, they no longer dream of changing the regime.
Israeli vision and strategy nowadays is reduced to three goals: to maintain peace and tranquility along the Lebanese-Israeli border, which has been respected by both sides for the past 11 years; to refrain from provoking Hezbollah and prevent an escalation or even a new war; and, at the same time, to do everything possible to weaken Lebanese-Shi’ite military capabilities.
These goals are achieved by a clever policy of keeping to the letter of the 2006 ceasefire agreement and subsequent UN resolutions, while taking advantage of the Syrian civil war by attacking Hezbollah’s weapons supplies – especially long-range, accurate missiles – supplied by Iran and delivered to the group through Syria and into Lebanon.
Israel rarely takes responsibility for attacks on Syrian soil, so Hezbollah is unable to accuse the country of violating the ceasefire.
Nevertheless, the new chaos in Lebanon serves Israeli interests well. When Hezbollah is preoccupied with a political crisis at home and its military is bogged down in fighting to defend the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, its already small appetite for a new war with Israel becomes even smaller.
More generally, Israeli national interests are served by any measures taken by anyone to curb Iranian influence.
It’s clear to the Israeli intelligence community that this crisis was not spontaneous, nor a result of a real or even invented plot to assassinate Hariri. Rather, Saudi Arabia premeditated the events within the framework of its battle with Iran over regional hegemony and leadership of the Muslim world.
Riyadh senses that Iran is making significant inroads in Iraq and Syria, and that Tehran is emerging as a major winner – alongside Assad and Russia – of the wars there and the defeat of Islamic State.
It aims at containing what it perceives as Iranian expansionism and sending a strong signal that Tehran's backyard – Lebanon – is vulnerable. In other words, just as Iran uses proxies like the Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon, so too can Saudi Arabia.
Hariri’s resignation caught Iran and Hezbollah by surprise. But for now, Israeli experts believe that even if the Lebanese crisis is prolonged, Hezbollah will maintain a conciliatory approach to avoid violent clashes or even a civil war as well as being dragged into an external war with Israel.
Despite its rhetoric, Hezbollah knows very well that in any future war, Israel intends to take off its gloves and launch a massive attack not only against its military and political power but also against Lebanon as a state.
Despite the common ground to weaken Iran and Hezbollah, relations between Israel and the Sunni world – especially Saudi Arabia – are much more complex. “Netanyahu is trying to create a wrong impression,” Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, who served for more than 20 years until 2001 as his country's chief of intelligence and later its ambassador to the US and the UK, said last month.
On several occasions, al-Faisal shared a platform with former Israeli generals and intelligence chiefs, most recently with former Mossad director Ephraim Halevy on a panel hosted by the Emanu-El Synagogue in New York City. But the Saudi prince insisted that all his encounters are with former Israeli officials and that he will not meet with serving government officials.
According to al-Faisal, despite the common interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia to curb Iran's nuclear program and its aspirations for regional hegemony, true cooperation between the two countries can be achieved only when peace between Israel and the Palestinians is established. “Iran is a common goal, but let us remove the Palestinian obstacle from the agenda,” he said.
History shows that his analysis is accurate and refutes Netanyahu’s message. After Israel and the Palestinians led by Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords in 1994, Israel’s international status was upgraded significantly. Dozens of nations in Asia and Africa, including the two world powers of India and China, opened or renewed diplomatic relations. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel while Qatar, Morocco and Mauritania opened diplomatic missions in Israel. Arab leaders from Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates met in public with Israeli leaders, and Israel’s trade blossomed. But when in 2000, the second intifada (uprising) broke out, these Arab nations closed their diplomatic missions in Tel Aviv and avoided any photo-op with Israeli leaders like the plague.
I assume that Israel, via the Mossad, can maintain its secret ties with the Sunni world. But these ties will always remain limited in their scope: cooperation in the battle against terrorism as well as sales of hi-tech military systems and advanced intelligence. But in order to propel its relations with the Arab world into the open, Israel must renew negotiations with the Palestinians and be ready to make territorial and other concessions. Netanyahu and his government have neither the plans nor the desire to do so.