The enemy of my enemy

In Yemen's civil war, Israel's interests are aligned with Saudi Arabia's.

HOUTHI FOLLOWERS burn US and Israeli flags during a demonstration in Sanaa, Yemen in 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS)
HOUTHI FOLLOWERS burn US and Israeli flags during a demonstration in Sanaa, Yemen in 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the rough and tumble Middle East, it is difficult to separate the good guys from the bad guys.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Yemen, where a complicated mix of players are vying for control, none of which are particularly pro-Western, democratic or liberal-minded. Houthis, a revivalist group of Zaydi Shia backed by Iran, are fighting against a coalition of Sunni Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia that includes Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Senegal. Al-Qaeda and Islamic State forces are also fighting in Yemen, targeting primarily the Houthis, who are seen as infidels. To a certain extent, the conflict in Yemen can be seen as a part of a larger war across the region between forces aligned with Iran on one side, and the Sunni majority on the other.
In Syria, Saudi-backed rebels are fighting Bashar Assad’s regime, supported by Iran; in Lebanon, the Saudis back the Sunni Future Movement while Hezbollah is Iran’s proxy; in Iraq, Shi’ite forces clash with Sunni forces.
Because Iran, more than any Sunni nation, supports Israel’s archenemies – Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza – Israel has been thrown into the Saudi-led anti-Iran camp.
This is not to say that Israel shares values with the Saudis, the country that gave birth to Wahhabism and that played a role in the 2001 9/11 attacks on the US (15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudis).
Nevertheless, for reasons that have more to do with realpolitik, the Saudis along with a number of other Sunni states have common interests with Israel. The ancient proverb, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” holds true here.
Israel and the Saudis face a common threat from Iran. This was on display Sunday as Saudi Arabia came under a ballistic missile attack from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen of the kind that Israel has experienced by Hezbollah from south Lebanon and by Hamas from the Gaza Strip. Both the Houthis and Hezbollah have received missiles from Iran. And Gaza-based Hamas receives backing from Iran.
In December, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that Tehran might be transferring ballistic missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen. In September, the IDF said that Iran is working tirelessly to outfit Hezbollah with more accurate missiles in preparation for another war against Israel.
Both Israel and the Saudis want to see US President Donald Trump toughen the 2015 nuclear arms deal with Iran, not just to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons but also to deter it from its expansionism in places such as Yemen and Lebanon. By replacing Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and by appointing John Bolton as his national security adviser, Trump seems to be signaling that the US will insist on adding sanctions against Iran in an attempt to deter it from its aggressions in the region.
The Saudis and Israel find themselves firmly on the same side as the US on this issue.
So while Israel and the US might not share with the Saudis and other Sunni states in the region values on issues such as human rights, democracy and freedom, there is a dovetailing of interests vis-a-vis Iran. And both Saudi Arabia and Israel have experienced first-hand Iran’s expansionist aggression.
This anti-Iran coalition has far-reaching implications for future cooperation between Israel and Sunni states. Saudis along with additional Sunni countries now realize that cooperation with Israel is too important to allow the unresolved tensions between Israelis and Palestinians to get in the way. A more pragmatic approach to solving the latter conflict might now be adopted.
The shared interests of Israel and the Saudi-led coalition will also help crystallize US foreign policy. America’s job of formulating foreign policy in the Middle East is made easier when its allies are in agreement about the need to rein-in Iran.
The Houthi missile attack on Saudi Arabia that resulted in the death of an Egyptian citizen is yet another incident that brings together Israel and the Saudis by demonstrating they have a shared enemy.