An open secret’: Saudi Arabia and Israel get cozy

November 15, 2017 8:18 pm
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WASHINGTON — In the Middle East, your enemy’s enemy is your friend.

For Israel, Saudi Arabia’s growing willingness to confront Iranian influence in the Middle East presents an opening for an awkward alliance. As the kingdom’s dynamic new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, tries to rally an anti-Iran coalition, Israel — with the blessing of the Trump administration — is presenting itself as a willing and able partner.

The appetite for cooperation between two of America’s closest allies in the Middle East has grown in recent years as their security interests have dovetailed. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia view Iran’s growing influence in the region as an existential threat and want to squash militant Islamist groups like ISIS and Iran’s main proxy, Hezbollah.

A U.S. official who witnessed a Saudi and Israeli official hold a closed-door meeting together recently said such informal meetings have been taking place for “at least five years.”

Officials say Israelis are cautiously optimistic about the budding friendship with the revamped Saudi regime, but observers identify many risks.

The crown prince, while seen by many as a reformer, is also widely viewed as erratic.

For example, the abrupt resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri last week after Saudi leaders summoned him to Saudi Arabia has essentially left Lebanon, Israel’s neighbor to the north, vulnerable to total Hezbollah domination.

Daniel Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel until January, said that while Israelis are encouraged by the prince’s swift actions, “He is inexperienced, young and kind of impulsive, and in the case of Lebanon, there’s a sense he may be setting Israel up to do the dirty work.”

Related: Saudi Arabia and Iran Battle for Power in the Middle East

An Israeli-Saudi alliance would also be vastly unpopular on the Arab street given the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

“An alliance with Israel will definitely hurt the Saudis and their allies,” said Hassan Hassan, an author and Middle East expert with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington. “It makes sense for them on the geopolitical level but not internally or on the social level.”

“The paradox is that Saudi Arabia and others want to counter Iran through an alliance with Israel, but failing to stand up to Iran and then align with Israel is ticking all the boxes of a bad policy.”

‘It’s an open secret’

In the late 1970s, Arab governments became less concerned with their conflict with Israel and more focused on modernization and political continuity, leaving dormant the question of Palestinian statehood. Meanwhile, Israeli and Saudi officials began realizing the potential for collaboration as their concerns converged during Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Sunni kingdom and the Jewish state were both unhappy about the hostile new Shiite theocracy in the neighborhood.

“The Saudi-Israeli intelligence relationship has been there in an outline — an exchange of views — for decades,” said Simon Henderson, director of the gulf and energy policy program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It has its own life because of Iran. That’s the umbrella reason.”

While Saudi Arabia’s government has since come to view the Israelis as a potential partner in the region, it continues to resist an open diplomatic embrace, preferring off-the-record consultations.

“It’s an open secret,” Shapiro said. “There is a considerable amounts of quiet, behind-the-scenes coordination between them — intelligence channels and other security channels — and it remains quiet because Israel is still unpopular in those Arab states.”

Three former U.S. officials told NBC News that U.S. diplomats engage with both sides with the assumption that the two parties speak directly. One official said that Israel and Saudi Arabia had presented virtually identical points of concern while negotiations were underway on the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran.

Image: SAUDI-TECH-FORUM

 
 

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