Unlikely bedfellows

In late 2013, rumors abounded of secret high-level contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Air Force jets fly in formation during a graduation ceremony for Air Force officers in Riyadh (photo credit: Fahad Shaheed/reuters)
Saudi Air Force jets fly in formation during a graduation ceremony for Air Force officers in Riyadh
(photo credit: Fahad Shaheed/reuters)
According to Palestinian sources, Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Amir Salman bin Sultan and two senior military officers made a clandestine early December visit to Israel where they had talks with senior defense officials and reportedly even met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A few weeks earlier, according to Iranian sources, Saudi Intelligence Director Prince Bandar bin Sultan (the deputy defense minister’s brother) had a long, detailed covert meeting with Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo, in which they discussed “containing Iran by any possible means.”
In November, the London Sunday Times reported that Israel and Saudi Arabia were coordinating contingency plans for an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations and that the Saudis had agreed to allow Israeli jets, drones and rescue helicopters to overfly their airspace.
By their very nature, the reports of secret Israeli-Saudi cooperation are difficult to corroborate. But the fact that they are spreading highlights the common Israeli-Saudi interest in curbing a hegemonic Shi’ite Iran and their shared perception that their major ally, the United States, cannot be relied upon to ensure that the militant Islamic Republic does not go nuclear.
In regional terms, Israel in a largely hostile neighborhood depends on America’s indispensable support. Similarly, the more moderate Sunni axis, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, has always counted on the US in its struggle against the more radical Sunnis and the Iranian-led Shi’ite axis. But with America perceived as a weak link, in withdrawal mode and reluctant to use force, the idea of creating a new regional balance of power through an unwritten and covert Israeli-Sunni alliance is gaining traction.
How realistic is this? Do the Sunnis or Israel have any genuine great power option other than the US? For now, the answer is a resounding no. Moreover, there are clear and obvious limitations to the degree of practical cooperation between them, given the antagonism of the Sunni street toward Israel and the fact that little overt Israeli-Sunni collaboration is possible as long as the Palestinian question remains unresolved.
What is possible is discreet tactical cooperation on specific issues where there is an ad hoc confluence of interest – for example, with Saudi Arabia on Iran, with Egypt on US aid to Cairo or with Jordan on water sharing.
Indeed, for now, Israel-Sunni cooperation will likely be largely limited, covert and on a one-to-one, state-to-state basis. For any wider, tectonic region-changing alliance, an Israeli-Palestinian conflict-ending treaty would be a necessary – although perhaps not sufficient – condition.
Nevertheless, the mere existence of a predominantly pro-Western Sunni alliance, even if it does not include Israel, serves Israel’s fundamental strategic interests.
The rival Shi’ite axis consists of Iran, Bashar Assad’s Syria, the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and the Shi’ite-led government in Iraq; the more moderate Sunni axis is made up of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, most of the Gulf States, Jordan and Yemen. Turkey tried to build a more radical Sunni axis with the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, Hamas and Qatar, but this came to naught with the overthrow of the Islamist Morsi government in Egypt last July. Egypt is now back in the more moderate Sunni fold, Qatar is reassessing its options and Turkey, its regional standing rocked by a major government corruption scandal, is flirting with both Iran and Iraq across the Shi’ite side of the Muslim divide.
THE MOST urgent Saudi and wider moderate Sunni worry is that the diplomatic process launched between the powers and Iran last November will ultimately lead to the US selling them down the river. They fear that faraway America will be ready to contain a nuclear Iran, no matter what it says to the contrary.
Their critique of the US, however, goes well beyond Iran. The Sunnis maintain that by not going through with his threat to launch a military strike against Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria last August, US President Barack Obama missed a golden opportunity to disrupt the anti-Western Iranian-led Shi’ite axis. An American strike, they argue, would have tilted the military balance in favor of the rebels, paved the way for a pro-Western Sunni government in Damascus, removing Syria from the Iranian axis and cutting Iran off from its Hezbollah proxy.
The moderate Sunnis were also baffled by the Obama Administration’s conduct in Egypt, turning its back on solid long-time ally Hosni Mubarak, then embracing the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime, and, after its overthrow, withholding aid from General Abdel Fattah Sisi’s moderate pro-Western interim government. Obama’s claim to be acting to keep America on “the right side of history” presumed a capacity to read the march of history and presupposed the “victory” of the radical Islamists, two highly dubious propositions. Indeed, for the Sunnis it reflected a naïve readiness to betray longstanding allies for an unknown outcome. Worse, there was an element of self-fulfilling prophecy. The actions and omissions the policy generated could help bring about the predicted outcome, contrary to the strategic interests of both the US and the moderate Sunni camp.
In a mid-December op-ed in The New York Times, Mohammed bin Nawaf, the Saudi ambassador to London, excoriated Western policy towards Syria and Iran as “a dangerous gamble.” While Iran was sending troops into Syria, financing and training subversives and terrorists in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, the West was allowing Iran to continue to enrich uranium and doing virtually nothing to stop Assad’s “killing machine,” he charged. Saudi Arabia, he warned, would have no option but to adopt a “more assertive” policy. The article, clearly authorized by the Saudi regime, was one of a string of rare public expressions of Saudi concern aimed at influencing US policy.
The “more assertive” policy warning was a thinly veiled threat of Saudi readiness to act against Iran, presumably in collaboration with Israel. Indeed, the Saudis would like nothing more than for Israel to do the job for them and take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. But the chances of anything like this happening as long as the US and the other five powers continue talking to Iran is negligible. The implied or leaked threats seem to be more noise than substance, designed to pressure the negotiating parties on both sides to reach a deal the Saudis and Israelis can live with.
Some observers suggest that Israel and the Saudis should offer Washington a full-blown plan for regional security as an alternative to US dialogue with Iran. But this is to put the cart before the horse. Such a comprehensive public Saudi initiative would only be possible if and when the Palestinian question is resolved or clearly well on the way to a resolution.
Nevertheless, the existing, limited and covert Saudi-Gulf-Israeli ties are useful in and of themselves. In the diplomatic sphere the Saudis have often made initial overtures on Arab accommodation with Israel. The Fahd initiative in 1982 suggested the Saudis no longer rejected Israel’s right to exist; in the wake of the 1991 Madrid Conference, they participated in five working groups on regional issues; and the Saudi-initiated Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002 promised full Arab normalization of ties with Israel in return for resolution of the Palestinian issue.
This has given the Saudis a special role in Mideast peacemaking. In 2007, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert reached out to Riyadh in an effort to produce an API draft both sides could accept.
And, in early January, after talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah, US Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to Saudi Arabia hoping to find a way to factor the API into his Israeli-Palestinian peace effort.
Still, direct diplomatic contacts between Israel and the Saudis remain limited and covert, and Israel’s economic and security ties with the Gulf States follow the same paradigm.
Israeli goods reach Gulf markets, but are sold without ‘Made in Israel’ labels. Israeli security companies reportedly work with the Gulf States on a range of issues, including security consulting, training of local forces and the sale of advanced weapons systems, on condition that they keep it secret. As part of this low-key partnership, Israel has also quietly withdrawn its once blanket opposition to American weapons supplies to the Gulf.
THE OVERALL economic potential for technologically advanced Israel and the oilrich Gulf States is considerable. But again, for it to develop in the open, there would have to be a major breakthrough on the Palestinian track.
The Saudis have another reason for closer ties with Israel. They fear that in the longer term, America, well on the way to becoming a net oil exporter no longer dependent on imports from the Gulf, will abandon them.
They see in Israel not only a military power that could do a job for them against Iran, but also a key to closer relations, including a regional security pact, with an America that is somehow persuaded to change course.
However, some observers point out, that if none of this works out, the growing threat from Iran could have the opposite effect and drive the Saudis closer to Tehran, totally undermining any thought of a pro-Western Israel-Sunni bloc.
Egypt, the other major player in moderate Sunni regional politics, does not have the economic wherewithal to even contemplate a break with Washington. That weakness is also one of the reasons for the new Cairo regime’s closer ties with Israel. Last October, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry’s Political and Military Affairs Bureau, lobbied in Washington, albeit unsuccessfully, for continued US aid to Egypt following the forcible ouster of the Muslim Brothers. In Washington, Gilad argued that the moderate Sunni takeover in Egypt would strengthen the wider moderate Sunni alliance and have a stabilizing influence on the region as a whole.
The overthrow of the Muslim Brothers had an immediate impact on regional alliances.
For Egypt, it meant Turkey, which had tried to build a more Islamist Sunni pact including the Muslim Brothers, out, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, in. Indeed, with the overall regional strategic vision in mind, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates poured $12 billion into Egypt in an effort to shore up the new moderate Sunni regime under General al-Sisi.
Israel and the Sisi regime also share a common strategic interest: weakening the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, in Gaza. As part of its crackdown against the Muslim Brothers, the Egyptian army took effective action against weapons smuggling across the Sinai desert into Gaza, destroying hundreds of underground tunnels.
Israel and Jordan, another important member of the Sunni camp, also share strategic interests. For example, some in the Jordanian establishment reportedly support a limited Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, which they see as a force for stability and for preventing Palestinian national aspirations extending eastwards across the Jordan River. For much the same reasons, they also reportedly back Israeli plans to build a state-of-the art security fence along the Jordan River. Israel sees it as a barrier to prevent arms smuggling into the West Bank; the Jordanians as a barrier to curb potential Palestinian expansionism from the West Bank.
Clearly, for Israel, a flourishing moderate Sunni axis has major strategic benefits, even if it is never formally accepted as a member and despite the recent criticism of American policy vis-à-vis Syria and Iran.
Speaking at the Herzliya-based Institute of Counterterrorism’s 13th Annual International Conference in early September, Gilad underlined the significance of a powerful, still predominantly pro-American Sunni axis that does not see Israel as “the enemy,” and which helps to keep radical Jihadist terror at bay.
“This has huge importance… and opens up vast opportunities for Israel,” he declared.