The cautious détente between Saudi Arabia and Israel

The cautious détente between Saudi Arabia and Israel
Analysis: A previously inconceivable strategic alliance has been fostered between Saudi Arabia and Israel, defying decades of rhetoric and geopolitics, writes Stasa Salcanin.
6 min read
28 February, 2018
Riyadh is spearheading a covert détente with Tel Aviv [Getty]
Only a few years ago it would be inconceivable for Saudi Arabia and Israel to cooperate on any issue. Israel and Saudi Arabia still don't have diplomatic relations or any formal ties between the two countries; if they ever did exist, they were never discussed openly.

But in the past two years, a series of statements and public appearances of Israeli and Saudi officials gives an impression of a cautious rapprochement between the two states.

Warmer tones from Tel Aviv and Riyadh

Last July, for example, Israel's military Chief of Staff Lt Gen Gadi Eizenkot said that Israel and Saudi Arabia had a mutual interest in thwarting Iranian regional drives. In November, Saudi newspaper Elaph published an unprecedented interview with Eizenkot; the first Israeli military officer ever interviewed by Saudi media. 

Shehab Al-Makahleh is the president of the Geostrategic Media Center, a senior media and political analyst in the Middle East and adviser to many international consultancies. He said that Eizenkot's statement that Tel Aviv was ready to exchange experiences with "moderate" Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, was a clear indication that cooperation goes beyond politics into intelligence and security information to counter Iran.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz also acknowledged having clandestine contacts with Saudi officials.

On the Saudi side, Dr Anwar Eshki, a retired Saudi general and founder of The Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies, publicly shook hands with Dore Gold, a top adviser to Binyamin Netanyahu, at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations in 2015.

Israeli officials were the first to offer their support to Saudi Arabia, saying that there was no more 'Israel against Arabs' but 'Israel and other Arab states against Qatar'

Finally, Netanyahu last September said that relations with the Arab world were "at their strongest in Israel's history" as he congratulated himself on improved international relations. While Gulf leaders have not responded to Israeli statements with the same warmth due to sensitivities within their own countries - where the Israeli state is viewed as the arch-enemy of the Arabs - it does not mean that many Gulf leaders do not share similar views.

A sign of this fresh cooperation has been apparent during the ongoing Qatar crisis, when Israeli officials were the first to offer their support to Saudi Arabia, saying that there was no more "Israel against Arabs" but "Israel and other Arab states against Qatar" and the claimed Qatar-financed "terror".

According to Al Makahleh, Israelis benefitted greatly from this rift, prompting minister of defence Avigdor Lieberman to announce that the crisis was a great opportunity for cooperation between Israel and Gulf States. 

Additionally, Chagai Tzuriel, a top Israeli official at the ministry of intelligence, said that Qatar was a real pain to other Sunni Arabs.  

Iran - a common enemy 

The signs of rapprochement come at the time when Sunni Arabs and Israelis share a perceived threat from the successes of Shia Iran, which has emerged as the major winner from the Syrian civil war and from the defeat of the Islamic State group. Gulf Arab countries are also worried about the Islamic Republic's support for Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen. 

For years now, Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia and its allies, have been expressing fear of Iran's alleged goal of forming a "Shia Crescent" stretching from Tehran to Beirut, passing through Baghdad and Damascus.

Thus, "moderate Arab states", according to Al Makahleh, believe that it very important to have stronger ties with Israel - because this would give them an additional powerful weapon to counter Iran.

The cautious Saudi-Israeli detente also closely aligns with the current US administration's views on Iran and other Middle East hot spots. Both sides strongly sympathise with Donald Trump's hard-line policy toward Iran, reversing most of the measures adopted by his predecessor who attempted to ease the longstanding enmity between the US and the Islamic Republic.

"With President Donald Trump, there is a chance for a new international alliance in the region and a major strategic plan to stop the Iranian threat," Lt General Eisenkot said in the interview.

But the ongoing battle for power and influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a dangerous one. Many neighbouring countries have been drawn into the conflict with Qatar, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon, becoming a polygon in the fight for regional dominance. 

French President Emmanuel Macron strongly criticised the increasingly confrontational attitude towards Iran and said that "the official line pursued by the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, who are our allies in many ways, is almost surely one that would lead us to war... this line is a deliberate strategy for some. We must maintain some form of balance. Otherwise, we end up surreptitiously rebuilding an 'axis of evil'."

One thing we know about the Iranian security bureaucracy is that they believe the best defence is a good offence

Many have expressed the fear of conflict escalation. Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy programme at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview given to Vox that we are probably at the most likely point for any possible conflict between the US and Iran in the past 25 years. She said] Iran had good reason to feel threatened right now by the actions of the Saudis and by the appearance of some collusion between the Saudis, the United States and the Israelis.

One thing we know about the Iranian security bureaucracy, she said, is that they believe the best defence is a good offence.

This, would, of course, lead to one of the most dangerous conflicts in modern history.  

Palestine - an apple of discord

But forging closer Saudi-Israeli ties will depend on progress made over the Palestinian question, considering the only solution to the Palestinian-Israeli issue is through direct dialogue with reference to the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. The plan called for Israel to withdraw from territories occupied after the 1967 Six-Day War and accept the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in exchange for diplomatic relations with the region's Arab countries.

Despite widespread international support, Israel has never accepted the initiative. Instead, Al-Makahleh says the economic hardships faced by Jordan and Palestine force both to accept the "Century Deal" - even if they do not approve it.

Washington's so-called "deal of the century" offers the Palestinians a state in Gaza and parts of the West Bank, without Jerusalem. Saudis, Egyptians, Israelis as well as Americans reportedly want this deal to be drafted before the end of this summer. 

In addition, Donald Trump's decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem is another obstacle in the road. Both issues, therefore, block any formal cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel - as an open alliance with Israelis would look very awkward for Riyadh, giving the impression that the Saudis had completely abandoned the Palestinian cause.   

According to Al-Makahleh, the only country guarding and supporting the Palestinians since 1967 has been Jordan, while other regional powers ignored the Palestinian cause. After all, Saudis now have their own internal issues, as well as the war in Yemen and the face-off with Qatar to deal with. Al-Makahleh thinks Palestine has become a heavy burden for many Arab leaders:

"They are trying to find a way out for solving the issue even at the expense of Arab, Christian and Muslim interests in Jerusalem."

But a new reality calls for new measures and new friendships, based on mutual interest. While a lack of progress in ending the occupation of Palestinian territories will continue to obstruct formal diplomatic relations, behind-the-scenes cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel has already taken place - and we can expect much more in the future.  


Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.