The alliance that shouldn’t be

There has been a host of commentaries suggesting that a rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia should be underway.

A Saudi delegation greeting US Secretary of Defense Hagel. (photo credit: REUTER)
A Saudi delegation greeting US Secretary of Defense Hagel.
(photo credit: REUTER)
Since the interim deal with Iran was signed last month, there has been a host of commentaries suggesting that a rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia should be underway.
As is the case with alliances, it is generally the hate rather than love for the same things that make then endure. Both countries are eager to prevent Iran from achieving military nuclear capability and seek to curb Iranian attempts to attain regional hegemony.
Both also interpret US reluctance to use force as a sign of a gradual US shift away from the Middle East, and as a result they question, perhaps more than ever, America’s commitment to their security.
However, Israel would do well to distance itself as much as possible from initiatives to form a common front with Saudi Arabia against the Obama administration.
Even the perception that there is such a united front could harm relations with Israel’s primary ally, which in any case are in a sensitive period.
Also, a growing threat from Iran will not make it easier for Saudi Arabia and Israel to cooperate.
Shared interests do not denote an identical view of the strategic environment. Thus, for example, the agreement with Iran and the fear of the Islamic Republic could lead Saudi Arabia, for lack of any other option, to hedge closer to Iran in a measured fashion, and later, to be more vocal about the Israeli nuclear issue, since “if Iran, then why not Israel?” Moreover, any attempt to change the relations from covert to overt could damage them.
So far Riyadh has refused to comply with the US request for confidence building measures toward Israel in order to create a supportive regional atmosphere for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the kingdom has even pressured the small monarchies to follow suit.
At the same time, however, WikiLeaks documents indicate an “ongoing and secret dialogue” on the Iranian issue between Israel and some of the Gulf States. Senior officials from both sides have held ongoing meetings. Israel has softened its policy on weapons exports to the Gulf States as well as its attempts to restrict sales of advanced weapons by the US to the Gulf, in part as a signal that it sees a potential for partnership more than a possible threat.
The Saudis recognize Israel’s military power as well as its close ties with the United States (and its influence in Congress), and they see the value in maintaining some level of coordination with it.
However, the cost of open relations with Israel at this time may be higher than the benefit in Saudi eyes, given the position of the Arab street, which rejects recognition of Israel and relations with it. The Arab monarchies are currently benefiting from the fact that covert, unofficial relations allow them to enjoy the advantages of ties with Israel without having to pay a price in public opinion, which has become more vocal since the outbreak of the “Arab Spring.”
Additionally, common interests are not common values. To a certain extent, covert relations are also more comfortable for Israel: Israel as such need not confront the moral aspects of ties with absolutist monarchies, and can even present Saudi hostility as another barrier to the confidence building that is essential to promoting the peace process and producing the fruits of peace.
In addition, Saudi Arabia may hope for an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructures, but it harbors reservations about any appearance of operational cooperation with Israel, lest it be required to pay the price for an Israeli attack.
The basis for understandings between Israel and Saudi Arabia has expanded following the interim nuclear agreement signed by the major powers and Iran, which was not viewed positively in Israel or Saudi Arabia, and the agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons, which gave legitimacy and precious time to the Bashar Assad regime.
In spite of the convergence of interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia, full normalization is not on the agenda as long as there is no significant political breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians. At the same time, there is a wide range between full diplomatic relations and a total lack of contact, and the two countries can take advantage of this. These common interests won’t lead to normalization but can strengthen the covert coordination and the understandings between them.The author, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv University’s institute for national security studies, served on Israel National Security Council until 2010.