What’s the Point of the Israel-Saudi Alliance?

 

It’s been a busy few weeks for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Between purging his political rivals, trying to force the Lebanese Prime Minister to resign, and orchestrating a devastating war/humanitarian disaster in Yemen, it’s impressive he found the time to sit down for a four-hour interview with the New York Times’ Tom Friedman.

The resulting column, which reads more like a Saudi press release than an objective report from a featured columnist of one of the world’s leading news organizations, has received almost universally negative reviews from the Middle East expert and academic community. It isn’t necessary to rehash all of their critiques here, but I do want to draw attention to one comment in Friedman’s column that caught my eye. Late in the column, the ever-credulous Friedman quotes the young prince calling Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “the new Hitler of the Middle East.” Bin Salman goes on, “But we learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work. We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East.”

Friedman let this analogy go unchallenged, but the same could not be said for the rest of the world. The comment sparked widespread outrage, particularly among the Iranian public and press. Many critics pointed out the hypocrisy of an autocrat in the midst of prosecuting a war of aggression against a neighbor comparing another country’s leader to the Fuhrer of the Third Reich. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi responded by calling the crown prince an “adventurist,” and advised him “to think and ponder upon the fate of the famous dictators of the region in the past few years now that he is thinking of considering their policies and behaviour as a role model.”

Few seemed aware that this was not the first time in recent memory that a Middle Eastern leader had compared Iran to the Third Reich. That honor belongs to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has never been shy about framing the conflict with Iran in terms of the Holocaust even, and perhaps especially, in the most prominent of public settings. In just one such example at the 2009 United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu called the Iranian “marriage between religious fanaticism and weapons of mass destruction” the biggest threat facing the world since Nazi Germany.

At least one person noticed the similarity between the Saudi prince’s rhetoric and that of the Israeli Prime Minister: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In his response to the comment, Rouhani did not mention bin Salman by name, but did note that it was “strange” that the “inexperienced officials of certain regional countries utter some words which are exactly like the words of the Zionist regime.”

Rouhani may be on to something here. One possible way to interpret bin Salman’s “Hitler” remarks is to view it as a deliberate — and potentially coordinated — adoption of Israeli messaging on Iran. There’s some evidence to support this theory. In early November, Israel’s Channel 10 News disclosed the contents of a cable sent by the Israeli Foreign Ministry instructing its diplomats to lobby foreign officials in support of Saudi Arabia and its policies toward Lebanon. Bin Salman’s remarks about Hitler, therefore, can be seen as a reciprocal effort by Saudi Arabia to increase public demonization of Iran (though, to be fair, it’s not like Saudi Arabia was having much trouble demonizing Iran without engaging in a little Reductio ad Hitlerum). Due to the secrecy surrounding the details of the relationship, it is impossible to know this with any certainty, but the timing and content of bin Salman’s remarks together with the Israeli cable make it seem less than coincidental.

For the Saudis, the potential benefits of this alliance are obvious. Less than two weeks after the Foreign Ministry cable, Israeli Defense Forces Cheif of Staff Gadi Eiseknot gave an interview to London-based Saudi owned newspaper Elaph in which he said that Israel is “ready to exchange experiences with moderate Arab countries and to exchange intelligence to confront Iran.” Thus, the Saudis get access to Israeli intelligence capabilities and military expertise, both of which are far superior to their own.

For Israel, the gains are less clear. Some Israeli commentators have portrayed the growing ties with Saudi Arabia as a moral victory for Israel and the region, a sign that Arab-Israeli relations may finally be changing for the better. The hope is that by working together, Israel and Saudi Arabia may finally be able to stop Iran’s quest for regional hegemony and in the process succeed in remaking the Middle East into a stable, peaceful, and prosperous region.

This is, of course, incredibly naive. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that either country is pursuing ties with the other in search of some better understanding about the region, nor is there any indication that their cooperation reflects a broader societal shift in Israeli-Arab relations.

Yet even from a practical standpoint, this alliance doesn’t make much sense. The idea that the fabled Mossad would either need or want Saudi intelligence’s help is prima facie ridiculous. Likewise, both nations already enjoy direct and near-unlimited access to American weaponry. Neither needs the other’s help to improve its relationship or expand its line of credit with the Trump administration.

The only possible place where Saudi help to Israel is even remotely plausible is in Palestine. This past week at the Saban Forum at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, presidential advisor/Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner elaborated on this possibility while discussing the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. “The Saudis care a lot about the Palestinian people,” Kushner said, “They believe the Palestinian people need to have hope and opportunity, and this has been a big priority for the king and the crown prince — finding a solution to this problem.”

What that “solution” might look like was revealed in a December 3 New York Times article that reported that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is being pressured by Saudi Arabia to accept what is being called the most Israel-friendly peace plan ever put forward. Under this arrangement, Palestinians would get a state in name but little else. The plan would give the Palestinians a non-contiguous territory in the West Bank, do nothing to reduce the majority of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, grant no access to East Jerusalem as a potential capital, and offer nothing on the right of return. In short, it is an Israeli dream proposal.

Less than two weeks after Kushner visited Riyadh, Abbas was summoned to the Saudi capital and was allegedly told he would either need to accept the proposal or face resignation. That none of the participants in selling this idea to Abbas seem aware of the inherent stupidity and impossibility of such a one-sided proposal tells you everything you need to know about the level of knowledge at play here. Abbas would literally be signing his own death warrant were he ever to accept such a proposal.

Realistically, the Israeli-Saudi alliance is built entirely on the premise of confrontation with Iran, but neither the Israelis nor the Saudis find themselves in a strategically favorable position at the moment to take action against the Iranians. Saudi Arabia is already engaged in several costly proxy wars with Iran in Yemen and Syria and the Saudis appear to be losing the upper hand in both. But while the Saudis need all the help they can get, the Israelis seem reluctant to risk their soldiers’ lives by getting more deeply involved in the conflict just to protect Saudi interests. Gen. Eisenkot said as much in his interview with the Saudi paper when he explicitly ruled out the possibility of Israel going to war again with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Still, this is a military alliance, not a diplomatic one, and military alliances are built on military officials discussing military solutions to military problems. With both Israeli and Saudi hands firmly gripping the hammer, how long will they be able to resist trying to strike the Iranian nail?

 

Author: Jonathan Leslie

PhD candidate at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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