Answering questions from his audience on Zoom at a Likud event on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of two reasons four Arab states normalized ties with Israel in the past year, and more want to join them: the economic advantages of cooperating, and shared security aims.
Netanyahu referred to his 2015 speech before both houses of the US Congress against the Iran deal: “During the speech, during the live broadcast, senior people from the Arab world called my people – I was still speaking – and they said: ‘We cannot believe what we are seeing... the daring of the prime minister of Israel. If he is willing to stand up against the strongest power in the world, we want to talk to you.’”
The prime minister added: “If there’s something that brings peace more than anything else, it’s that [Arab states] stopped seeing Israel as an enemy, and started seeing us as an ally in security and economically.”
This is a variation on things Netanyahu has been saying for some time, even more often since the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain took the plunge and normalized ties with Israel last year: We were drawn together due to a shared enemy, and then found other advantages to the relations.
What Netanyahu didn’t mention is that talks are ongoing to enhance the cooperation on security and intelligence matters, and not only with Bahrain and the UAE but probably Saudi Arabia as well, even though Jerusalem and Riyadh don’t have diplomatic relations.
These are countries that have been eyeing Iran’s latest steps toward a nuclear weapon with increasing concern, believe that a US return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal would not prevent Tehran from getting the bomb, and are working together to counter it.
In the past week, several Israeli news outlets, including The Jerusalem Post, have published stories to that effect, with each confirming the others’ reports and adding its own small details.
In some versions a Western country is involved in bringing them together, in some it’s an amorphous group of Middle Eastern countries, while in others it’s the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia specifically. Some imply that the countries are moving toward a structured defense alliance, while the Post reported that the matter is being “informally discussed.”
“There is much to be gained by expanding cooperation,” an Israeli official said.
The Prime Minister’s Office said it was “not confirming the report, but we are always interested in upgrading ties with our Middle East partners.”
The reports came at a time of increased contact between Israel and Arab states, with varying levels of concerns about Iran. Netanyahu spoke with the crown prince of Bahrain, Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with King Abdullah of Jordan, and Gabi Ashkenazi met with his Jordanian and Emirati counterparts. Ashkenazi also spoke with the foreign minister of Oman – another country with which Israel does not have official diplomatic relations, though Muscat has been open about its contacts with Jerusalem. The UAE’s first-ever ambassador to Israel arrived this week, and was given an especially warm welcome.
The talks about increased defense cooperation seem to be very initial at this point. The idea of a Middle Eastern NATO, in which each country commits to defend the group as a whole, seems to be a nonstarter, but an alliance meant to counter shared enemies of the countries involved is on the table.
A well-connected source in Abu Dhabi said the UAE, Bahrain and Israel are ready to move forward.
But the Saudi connection is less clear, the source said. “Channels are open” between Jerusalem and Riyadh, but Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known as MBS – is very secretive about any details.
That secrecy was clear in November, when Netanyahu and MBS met in the Saudi hi-tech city of Neom, on the shores of the Red Sea. Israel did not release any kind of official information, but the trip quickly leaked to the media. The Saudi Foreign Ministry released a non-denial; they countered some of the pertinent reported details – such as that then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo met with MBS in Neom that day – but did not explicitly deny that MBS and Netanyahu had met.
This week, there were two interesting indications that Saudi Arabia is willing to take some steps toward recognizing Israel.
First, World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder wrote an op-ed in Arab News – republished in the Post – calling for “a NATO for the Middle East.”
Lauder said that his contacts in Arab states view Israel as the only reliable ally against Iran, and that most Israelis he spoke with viewed the Arab world as “the only ally (against Iran) that they trust without reservation.”
They are “contemplating, aghast, the West’s inability to halt these belligerent, dangerous developments” of Iran resuming uranium enrichment and limiting International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors’ access to nuclear sites, he said.
“Facing the accelerating threat of a malevolent Iran and the weakness of a coronavirus-hit world, the path toward self-reliance seems also to be the only path forward,” Lauder wrote. “Israelis and Arabs should seize the opportunity to work together to save the Middle East from the looming catastrophe of extremism and nuclearization.”
Aside from Lauder being well connected and knowledgeable, the op-ed is notable because of where it was published. Saudi Arabia does not have a free press, and Arab News, an English-language daily newspaper published in the kingdom, is owned by Prince Turki bin Salman Al Saud, a son of King Salman and brother of MBS, and is seen as reflecting the Saudi government’s official views.
Hours later, US State Department spokesman Ned Price gave an even stronger indication of where the winds are blowing in Riyadh.
“We seek to accomplish a great deal with the Saudis to end the war in Yemen and ease Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, to use our leadership to forge ties across the region’s most bitter divides, whether that’s finding a way back from the brink of war with Iran into a meaningful regional dialogue, or forging a historic peace with Israel,” Price said in a press briefing. “Saudi actions will determine how much of this ambitious shared positive agenda we can achieve.”
In other words, “forging a historic peace with Israel” is part of an “ambitious shared positive agenda” between the US and Saudi Arabia.
Considering how much meaning is imbued in every word choice in the delicate game of diplomacy, it is unlikely that Price would have included peace with Israel in the list of things the US seeks to accomplish with Saudi Arabia, if it wasn’t something the countries were already discussing.
And, in fact, former Trump administration officials have long said Riyadh is very close to some level of recognition of Israel – perhaps not as warm or total as relations with the UAE and Bahrain, but something open – and it may have already happened had Trump been reelected. That’s not a knock on US President Joe Biden; the Saudis wanted to understand the new US administration’s views before taking a big step.
STILL, AS close as Saudi Arabia may be to recognizing Israel at some level, the messages coming their way from Washington could be discouraging for Riyadh.
That whole list of things the US seeks to accomplish with Saudi Arabia is possible only “in a partnership with Saudi Arabia that respects America’s values,” Price said.
The “recalibration,” as the Biden administration calls it, of relations between the US and Saudi Arabia is a complex issue beyond the scope of this article, but it could either stand in the way of Israel and Saudi Arabia growing closer – with the US not working to encourage it, as long as the Saudis don’t make significant internal changes – or bring the countries together, with recognizing the Jewish state being a Saudi move toward respecting America’s values.
In the meantime, Jerusalem and Riyadh’s cooperation remains below the radar, even as security and intelligence ties between Israel and the Gulf grow in the shadow of the Iranian nuclear threat.