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The Middle East always throws up the strangest of bedfellows. But none is stranger than the almost open bromance between Israel and Saudi Arabia, brought together by their joint hostility towards Iran.
What has only been hinted at over the past few months by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has now been brought out into the open by Israel’s top soldier and a government minister.
First, last week, Israel Defence Force Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot gave an unprecedented interview with Saudi newspaper Elaf, in which he described Iran as the ‘biggest threat to the region’.
Yet, even more surprising was what was said in plain and clear language. Eisenkot said Israel would be prepared to share intelligence with ‘moderate’ Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, to ‘deal with’ Tehran.
‘We are prepared to share information if it is necessary. There are many mutual interests between them [Saudi Arabia] and us’
However, if that were not enough, Israeli Energy and Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Army Radio – the Israeli equivalent of BFBS – that his country ‘has ties, some of them secret, with many Arab and Muslim states’.
Steinitz added: ‘Usually the one who wants those ties to be discreet is the other side … We respect the wishes of the other side when contacts are developing, whether it is with Saudi Arabia or other Arab or Muslim countries’. Well, post-Steinitz, these ties are secret no more – whether the other side wishes it or not.
‘We are prepared to share information if it is necessary. There are many mutual interests between them [Saudi Arabia] and us’. And Israel, he noted, was increasingly ‘highly regarded by the moderate countries in the region’
Given that Steinitz is very close to Netanyahu, it is hard to believe that he would have given the interview and revealed the existence of secret ties without the prior knowledge and approval of his boss.
There is another theory, however, doing the rounds in Jerusalem, and that is that this is simply a case of Steinitz shooting off because someone put a microphone in front of him, hardly unusual in Israeli politics.
It is equally surprising that the interviews with Eisenkot and Steinitz caused nary a stir in Riyadh (or any other Arab capital, for that matter). In fact, there wasn’t even the obligatory non-denial denial.
Since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, which brought the Ayatollahs to power, Israel and Saudi Arabia have had shared interests in the Gulf region. Israel sees Iran as a threat, and has made it clear for many years that it will not countenance Tehran developing nuclear weapons.
Sunni Saudi Arabia, for its part, views Shia Iran as not only a destabilising influence in the region, but also the embodiment of a feud between the two main branches of Islam that dates to the beginning of the post-Prophet Muhammad era.
One thing Saudi Arabia does fear is Iran stirring up the Shias in the region. The Shia represent between 10%–15% of Saudi Arabia’s population, and Riyadh sent forces to Bahrain to stave off an Iranian-backed Shia revolt in 2011.
So, the question is, why now has the veil of secrecy been lifted, if until this moment, both sides were happy to keep it all secret?
One reason could be that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) wants to take his country down a new path, and in doing so is sweeping aside the old guard in Riyadh.
MbS, like Netanyahu, is very close to the Trump administration, and has developed a good relationship with fellow thirtysomething Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s special envoy son-in-law. Iran, at least, saw no coincidence in the fact that Saad Hariri announced his resignation from the post of Lebanese Prime Minister in Riyadh only days after Kushner had been in town.
It is surprising that the interviews with Eisenkot and Steinitz caused nary a stir in Riyadh (or any other Arab capital, for that matter). In fact, there wasn’t even the obligatory non-denial denial
One fly in the ointment of the burgeoning Israeli-Saudi relationship is the fact that the Trump administration is likely to base its much-anticipated Middle East peace deal on the 2002 Saudi-authored Arab Peace Initiative.
Netanyahu has in the past rejected the initiative, since it called for Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 Six- Day War lines allowing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and to come to a just and agreed solution over the issue of Palestinian refugees.
In exchange for Israel accepting the deal, the Arab states would normalise diplomatic relations and guarantee regional security.
First and foremost, Israel’s – and Saudi Arabia’s – main concern is security. For as long as Iran remains hostile towards Jerusalem and Riyadh, the unlikely relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia is likely to grow
With his current right-wing coalition, Netanyahu would not be able to garner enough support to proceed with such a deal, even if it was to be backed by the Trump administration. For Netanyahu, losing his natural allies – even for the sake of a deal with most of the Arab world – is far too high a political price to pay.
However, Israel would dearly love to have Saudi Arabia, and by extension most of the other Gulf States (with the possible exception of Qatar), on side, and not just for security reasons.
For instance, Israeli aircraft en route to India and Far East cannot overfly the Arabian Peninsula since, officially, the Gulf States are still at war with Israel. Overturning that ban would cut hours off flights to and from Tel Aviv and Mumbai, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, all huge markets for Israel’s high-tech industry.
Currently, flights from Israel to these destinations take a circuitous route around the Arabian Peninsula or go the long way around over Russia and China.
Israel also sees massive opportunities to develop markets in the Arab and Muslim worlds for its high-tech and agri-tech industries.
But first and foremost, Israel’s – and Saudi Arabia’s – main concern is security. For as long as Iran remains hostile towards Jerusalem and Riyadh, the unlikely relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia is likely to grow.
Despite all this, it is unlikely that there will be a Saudi embassy in Tel Aviv and an Israeli one in Riyadh in the foreseeable future.
But then again, stranger things have happened in the Middle East.
Banner image: Israeli Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot (right) and US Marine General Joseph F Dunford Jr, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Israeli Defence Force headquarters in Tel Aviv. Courtesy of Department of Defense/D Myles Cullen/Wikimedia
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.