Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

A Saudi-Israeli "affair"?

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Is Saudi Arabia having an affair with Israel? For some time there have been reports of warming relations taking place behind closed doors, including sharing intelligence on their mutual enemy Iran and a rumoured secret visit to Israel by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman this year.

Now some of these reports have been confirmed with Israel's Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz admitting on Israeli radio on November 19 that Israel has had covert contacts with Saudi Arabia to discuss common concerns over Iran, despite Saudi Arabia having no diplomatic relations with Israel. When asked why Israel was hiding its ties with Riyadh, Steinitz replied:

"We have ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries, and usually (we are) the party that is not ashamed.
"It's the other side that is interested in keeping the ties quiet. With us, usually, there is no problem, but we respect the other side's wish, when ties are developing, whether it's with Saudi Arabia or with other Arab countries or other Muslim countries, and there is much more ... (but) we keep it secret."

Moreover, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the Israeli military's chief of staff, recently gave an interview to Saudi newspaper Elaph commenting that Israel and Saudi Arabia are in agreement about Iran's intentions. It represents the first time that a senior Israel Defence Forces officer has been interviewed by a media organisation in Saudi Arabia.

Closer ties with Israel may also be seen in the context of the appointment of 32 year-old Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman who claims to have a reformist agenda for Saudi Arabia. "M.B.S", as he is known, has already overturned a ban on women driving, and conducted anti-corruption purges that have detained princes and billionaires at the Ritz Carlton hotel - which were seen as consolidating his power. M.B.S claims that 10 percent of all government spending has been siphoned off by corruption each year, and that the purges will result in "around $100 billions in settlements."

According to New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman who recently interviewed M.B.S, the Prince is also seeking to bring Saudi Islam "back to its more open and modern orientation - whence it diverted in 1979."

Friedman writes, "Indeed, M.B.S. instructed me: ‘Do not write that we are ‘reinterpreting' Islam - we are ‘restoring' Islam to its origins - and our biggest tools are the Prophet's practices and [daily life in] Saudi Arabia before 1979.' At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, he argued, there were musical theaters, there was mixing between men and women, there was respect for Christians and Jews in Arabia. ‘The first commercial judge in Medina was a woman!' So if the Prophet embraced all of this, M.B.S. asked, ‘Do you mean the Prophet was not a Muslim?'"

M.B.S is widely viewed as good news for Israel. Saudi Arabia's founder Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who called Jews "treacherous" and "fraudsters", claimed "The Jews have no right to Palestine" and called for a holy war against them, may be rolling in his grave at news of growing ties between Riyadh and Jerusalem.

However, as the saying goes, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Israel and Saudi Arabia are both concerned that Iran is increasingly consolidating its hold on the region - indirectly controlling Lebanon via Hezbollah, Syria via Assad, Iraq via its government, and Yemen via the Houthi rebels. Iran is also reported to be setting up a permanent base in Syria around 50 kilometres from Israel's border. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the Assad regime that Israel will intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war if Assad provides formal permission to Iran to establish a military presence in Syria, Israeli TV reported on November 26.

M.B.S told Friedman that Iran's Supreme Leader "is the new Hitler of the Middle East", and that we "learned from Europe that appeasement doesn't work. We don't want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe and the Middle East."

Riyadh has asserted leadership on this issue leading to a series of related events in the last few weeks, which have escalated its battle with Iran, as Amos Harel writes in Haaretz:

"First came the announcement that Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri was resigning. At first it was explained as deriving from his concerns about an Iranian-inspired Hezbollah plot to assassinate him. As the days passed, the resignation seemed more like a Saudi dictate, stemming from Saudi Arabia's displeasure at the way Hariri was compelled to cooperate with Hezbollah in Lebanon's government.
"A few hours after the initial announcement, the Saudis announced a wave of arrests of princes and wealthy businessmen, on suspicion of corruption. As the princes were being detained under five-star-hotel conditions at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, a strange aerial accident took place in the southern part of the kingdom. The next day it emerged that a prince had tried to escape Saudi Arabia by air, using a helicopter which was shot down by the Saudi air force. The nine passengers and crew on board were killed. In the meantime, Yemen's Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, fired a missile at Riyadh's airport. American missiles successfully intercepted the missile. In retaliation, Saudi Arabia imposed a land and naval blockade on Yemen."

Hariri has since returned to Lebanon and has "delayed" his resignation and Saudi Arabia has also since eased the Yemen blockade, but the whole resignation saga has placed the spotlight on Hezbollah's control over Beirut.

Also related is Saudi Arabia's and other Sunni states boycotting Qatar due to its friendly relations with Iran. Consequently the Middle East sands are shifting into battle lines between those who support a Sunni Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, and those that take their orders from Iran.

Riyadh's hand may also possibly be seen in the Palestinian Authority/Hamas reconciliation agreement, with Saudi Arabia pressuring Hamas against renewing its ties with Iran, which has over the years provided Hamas with significant funding. The Palestinian reconciliation agreement was led by Egypt but it also requires financial backing by the Saudis and the Emirates.

These developments may also be creating the landscape in which a regional Israeli-Palestinian peace deal becomes more realistic, possibly based on the Saudi peace initiative, which called for Arab normalisation with Israel in return for measures that include withdrawing from territories to make way for a Palestinian state. There are reports that Israel is preparing for the possibility that the US Trump Administration will present Israel and the Palestinian Authority with a plan to jumpstart the stalled peace process.

US-based Palestinian author Hussein Ibish has urged his countrymen to seize the opportunity created by reconciliation between Israel and Saudi Arabia and other gulf states in a piece in the Atlantic:

"In the longer term, a wider opening between Israel and the Gulf Arab countries that are now largely driving the broader Arab agenda, especially when they collaborate with Egypt and Jordan, is currently the only viable path toward the resurrection of a process that can bring about, eventually, an end to the occupation and the realization of Palestinian independence. In the meanwhile, if it flourishes, such a new regional reality is bound to involve some benefits to Palestinians, and to keep their cause central to the strategic thinking of Washington and its key Middle Eastern allies. Therefore, it would be wise for Palestinians to look for ways of maximizing how this dynamic can work for them rather than indulging in knee-jerk denunciations and recriminations that will gain them nothing."

However, there are also genuine concerns that Saudi Arabia may be setting Israel up to do its dirty work by provoking another conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. This is the view of former Obama adviser Daniel Shapiro who wrote in Haaretz:

"But it is plausible that the Saudis are trying to create the context for a different means of contesting Iran in Lebanon: an Israeli-Hezbollah war.
With Assad clearly having survived the challenge posed by Saudi-backed rebels, the Saudi leadership may hope to move its confrontation with Iran from Syria to Lebanon...
Israel will have to make its own decision when the time is right for that fight...
But Israeli leaders will want to take care not to find themselves backed into a premature confrontation by the maneuvers of their allies who sit in Riyadh."

In any case, Israel will certainly make its decisions based on its own national interest and not take orders from Riyadh. But the sweeping changes occurring across the Middle East including the humanitarian disasters in Syria with over 500,000 dead, and millions of refugees, starvation in Yemen, and Iranian power grabs - have surely highlighted to the Sunni Arab world that Israel is not their primary enemy, and that it may even potentially be a friend and ally. Last week marked 40 years since Egypt's President Sadat made a historic speech in Israel's Knesset leading to the peace deal between Egypt and Israel being signed in 1979. At the time, few believed that peace between Egypt and Israel was possible, and yet it has lasted and continues to grow. Could peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia be in the works? Perhaps not any time soon, but stranger things have happened.

Sharyn Mittelman