Israel and Saudi Arabia’s Budding Romance

James Mattis/Flickr

When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared that Israelis “have the right to have their own land,” he shed light on an awkward alliance that’s emerging between Saudi Arabia and Israel—one that might re-shuffle the cards of power in the Middle East.

The emergence of Iran as a regional super power has brought Saudi Arabia and Israel’s points of view closer than ever. While war and chaos has unfolded in Syria, Tehran has been building military bases and training Shia fighters in the war-torn country to expand its influence in the region. This is a dangerous and unacceptable situation for both the Saudis and Israelis who see their relative power dwindling.

For the first time, a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran has become a real possibility. Hostilities have persisted between the two countries since 1979, but the language has never been so overtly violent. Ali Shirazi, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative to the Iranian forces, warned in April, “Iran has the capability to destroy Israel and given the excuse, Tel Aviv and Haifa will be razed to the ground.”

And Tehran isn’t just launching hostile words. It recently fired twenty rockets from Syria targeting Israelis on Golan Heights, the first strike Iran has ever directly carried out against Israel. Netanyahu has responded with the country’s most serious military response in Syria since 2011.

Heightening tensions further, Iran has moved closer than ever to Israel’s borders, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping. The country is pushing forward with efforts to establish a land bridge—an Iranian corridor stretching all the way from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

Saudi Arabia and Israel do not have any official diplomatic relations, but they share a common fear of Iran’s nuclear activities. Both countries strongly opposed the Iran nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015.

Trump’s decision to nix the deal and reinstate U.S. sanctions against the Iranian regime is a radical game-changer for regional stability. Already, Hezbollah and Shia Iraqis backed by Iran are increasing their military forces in the region. Tehran’s sense of threat has increased—and so has its anger and distrust. Iran could respond by restoring its uranium enrichment program, which will likely lead to a diplomatic and economic quagmire, if not eventually triggering war. Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir has already threatened that his country would build its own nuclear arsenal if Iran restarts its atomic weapons program.

To effectively deal with the growing threat Iran poses, Saudi Arabia and Israel have been communicating and sharing intelligence, as a leaked diplomatic cable revealed last year. Given their shared national interests and the crucial need for cooperation, will Israel and Saudi Arabia finally make their relationship official?

The answer probably lies in Palestine. Israel acknowledges that conflict in the West Bank and the Gaza strip is a threat to its security, and its Intelligence Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz suggested last December that Saudi Arabia could be an effective sponsor of the peace process. For the Crown Prince, leading a new peace agreement would help strengthen his legitimacy before succeeding his father and bolster Saudi Arabia’s perception as a leader in the Arab world.

But Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. embassy to the city has made peace a difficult prospect. With or without the Saudis, the lengthy conflict is likely to worsen. At least 2,400 Palestinians were wounded and 60 killed since Trump fulfilled his controversial promise. In this bloody context, Saudi Arabia and Israel are unlikely to open up about their close ties. Seen as colluding with the U.S. and Israel against Palestinians, the Saudis are in a very delicate position: institutionalizing their relationship with the Jewish state may damage their image in the Arab world.

Although Saudis and Israelis are unable to publicly acknowledge their common interests, their emerging relationship may be a golden opportunity to create a new positive dynamic in the region—one that would be favorable to both Israel and the Arab nations, with a promising peace agreement for Palestine. A realistic two-state solution based on the Arab Peace Initiative, even with American input, would set in motion a transformative regional process. It could be the beginning of a cooperative and balanced Middle East.

Unfortunately, such hopes are unrealistic. Iran can’t be reconciled with the Saudis, the Israelis and certainly not with the Americans. Europe is trying to pacify tensions—and buy time—but with little luck. In this war, self-interest and the quest for power is winning over any opportunities for peace in the region.

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