Sudden appointment of Mohammed bin Salman, the 31-year-old son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud of Saudi Arabia, to the position of crown prince was like “a dream come true for Israel.” Such vivid expression came from Daniel Shapiro, the former US Ambassador to Israel (2011-2017), one of the leading US experts in Middle East, Barack Obama’s advisor for Middle East issues.
Israel’s dream to have a consistent partner like the largest Arab monarchy is gradually coming true. At the current stage in history, the Middle East democracy and Saudi Arabia appear to have common interests amid threats emerging from the same regional power to which Israel’s government and al-Saud family feel enmity.
Appointing Prince Mohammed was a desirable result for Israelis, first of all, to focus on geopolitical confrontation with Iran. Ambitious crown prince who actually acts as king is a real catch for Israel and US Administration. Washington sees rare consensus of Democrats and Republicans over support to the Israeli-Saudi alliance that is taking shape. Diplomat Shapiro’s assessments just confirm this trend.
Meantime, Washington-based diplomats and analysts are sure that enmity towards Iran is not enough to maintain a strong Israeli-Saudi alliance even if some more Sunni countries in the region join it. The “landmark agreement” between Tel Aviv and Riyadh - this is how President Donald Trump calls it - may become a good foundation for this anti-Iranian alliance. The “pain syndrome” that still exists between Israel and the Arab world is Palestine. Settlement of this problem, even transitional, looks to become a platform for the Israel-Saudi Arabia alliance to come out of the shadow.
What does Trump offer to promote his “landmark agreement”? Nothing new, just some corrections of the so-called Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which is supposed to be adjusted to the Middle East realities considering the changes of the last 15 years (1).
They in Washington call the young crown prince an outspoken supporter of lifting the taboo from the relations of Arab world and Israel on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative 2002. Its frameworks are supposed to be expanded to make it more flexible and suitable to the ongoing processes in the region. In fact, Arabs in the Persian Gulf have a limited number of instruments to attract attention of Israel to their initiative. So far, they are not speaking loudly about it, but Trump’s “landmark agreement” with potential support of Saudi Arabia may become a breakthrough and an implementable initiative if one more element important for Israel is added to it. Recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the “six-day war” 50 years ago. Under the Arab Initiative 2002, the Golan Heights should be returned to Syria. However, there is no Syria as such at present.
Bashar al Assad’s Syria was excluded from the League of Arab States yet in 2011 and no monarchy in the Gulf will start normalizing relations with it. Al Assad “ceded” Syria to Iran, so why should we maintain the small territory of the Golan Heights (about 1,200 sq.km) under ephemeral Syrian sovereignty. This is what Riyadh and other Arab capitals think about all this now.
The Golan Heights along with Israel’s other wishes (particularly, establishment of confederative State of Palestine under guarantees of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and shifting the Jerusalem issue to the last stage of Palestinian-Israeli settlement) seem more rational to Saudis. For the time being, Israel’s army on the Golan Heights is one of the best solutions to the issue of breaking the “Shia axis” stretching from Iran’s western borders up to Lebanese coast of the Mediterranean (Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon).
The latest arrangements to create de-escalation zones in the southwest of Syria will help achieving that goal. Israel calls it “buffer zone” and did much to get such safe zone at the foot of its eastern borders in the territories of Syrian provinces of Quneitra, Sweida and Deraa. Approximately 24 hours before receiving reports on Jordan-brokered Russian-US agreement on southern de-escalation zone on July 7, western media highlighted idea of buffer between Israel and Syria (2).
Evidently, “freezing” the situation in Syria’s south meets the interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia more than Iran that is indirectly (by means of allied groups) present in Syria’s southwest. Tehran may not be happy with the Russian-US agreement at least because of its “separatist” nature without involving of Iranians into development of the agreement.
Israel-Saudi Arabia rapprochement goes beyond the Arab Initiative and the Palestinian issue. Geography of this rapprochement is impressing. In Lebanon, the two powers in the region have a common enemy – Hezbollah Shiite movement that enjoys Iran’s support. Relying on “Allah’s Party,” Iranians are expanding their influence on the entire line of Israel’s contact with Lebanon and Syria. The Damascus-Beirut highway controlled by Iranian “military advisors,” Hezbollah fighters and Syrian Army irritates both Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The latter has maintained a single ground control point in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus held by Jaish al-Islam (“Brigade of Islam”). Riyadh is holding it by all means possible with the support of Tel Aviv. Israel’s army has intensified strikes deeper into the territory of Syria among others to weaken rivals of “Brigade of Islam” that have surrounded its enclave. Israel’s foreign and domestic intelligence has established a secret channel of information exchange with Saudi General Intelligence over issues linked to Hezbollah’s activity and directly to actions of Iranian “advisors” in Syria.
In Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia have a common target and seek to prevent growing of Iran’s influence. Leadership of Iraq’s Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi forces are in the focus of attention of the two countries’ special forces. They keep a close watch on any activity of pro-Iranian groups in Iraq with the help of US intelligence.
US, Israel and Saudi Arabia use the factor of Iraqi Kurdistan not to let the government of the Shiite majority in Baghdad fall under Tehran’s influence. Issue of the Kurds’ separation from Iraq is raised every time the intelligence forces of the three countries need information on rapprochement of Baghdad and Tehran. The threat of a Kurdish referendum and of leaving “pain points” of fight against Daesh (“Islamic State,” IS, ISIL) in Iraq is successfully used by the three countries to press central government in Iraq.
In Yemen, where the Saudi coalition is waging an obscure military campaign against local Hussite rebels, Israelis are ready to offer support to the potential ally. Saudis seek to hold Iran from reaching the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula. To block access of Iran’s naval forces to the rebels in Yemen, Saudi Arabia needs the support of Israel and US. Egypt ceded two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Backed by US and Israel, that deal sought to block activity of Iran’s naval forces near Yemen.
Saudis are working on legitimization of their future alliance with Israel. Saudi lobbyists of rapprochement with Israel point at actual development of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979 into a “multilateral agreement.” For instance, according to Anwar Eshki, former Saudi general, ex-advisor to Saudi intelligence (currently heads Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies based in Jeddah), ceding of the two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia will result in de-facto recognition of Camp David Accords of 1978 by Riyadh. This will create an international legal foundation to bring the Israeli-Saudi relations out of the “regional underground” with the support of Egypt and US.
If Saudi Arabia recognizes Camp David Accords, this will pave the way to official recognition of the Jewish state’s right to exist. Noteworthy that Saudi Arabia is going on such step before any serious breakthroughs in the Palestine-Israel process. Yet, the Arab Initiative refuses to recognize Israel unless it returns to the borders of 1967.
In July 2016, a Saudi delegation led by Anwar Eshki travelled to Israel. It was not a sensation, considering a series of contacts of the two countries over Middle East agenda held earlier. Anyway, it was the first public visit of Saudi envoys, though at the level of experts and businessmen, to Israel to exchange views. In Jerusalem, the delegation comprising academicians and businesspersons met with Dore Gold, Director General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Major General Yoav Mordechai, coordinator of Israeli Defense Army operations in Judea and Samaria, as well as with a group of opposition parliamentarians. The stated goal of the visit was to promote the Arab Peace Initiative in the Palestine-Israel settlement.
Noteworthy that Dore Gold met with Anwar Eshki in summer of 2015 in US just before the nuclear deal of Big Powers with Iran. This and many other factors show that the Palestinian issue is important for Tel Aviv and Riyadh to find rapprochement points. However, the two counties have their special accounts to settle with Iran.
During the recent years, Israel has made no bellicose step directly against Saudi Arabia. Neither the latter did. This is enough for the anti-Iranian “seeds” of the two countries to produce “plants.”
However, the prospects of Israeli-Saudi alliance are not that evident. Expert in Middle East, Daniel Shapiro warns the US Administration against new Saudi crown prince’s too ambitious expectations. The young prince is too hot-blooded and unexperienced at the same time. Coupled with his ambitious efforts to dictate Riyadh’s terms to the Arab world, this has already created a number of problems to US in the latest Qatar crisis. Shapiro and other Washington-based supporters of the pragmatic Middle East policy offer Trump’s Administration to “strongly recommend” Mohammed bin Salman to avoid steps that would damage Washington’s interests.
Israel-Saudi Arabia alliance has been existing since six Big Powers made a nuclear deal with Iran in July 2015. Then Saudis failed to “reverse” the steps of Obama’s Administration, but they managed to find a partner to deter Iran. During the last two years, especially after new administration came to power in Washington, Israel has come much closer to its cherished goal to create an alliance, though momentary, with big Arab countries.
Division of the work in the anti-Iranian alliance is clear. Saudis seek to use military capacity of Egypt and Israel against Iran. Egypt has one of the strongest armies in the region, a relatively strong surface fleet in the Red See. Israel has not only a highly mobile army with destructive fire power replenished with F-35 falcons (in Dec 2016), but also submarine fleet able to settle such tasks that all the Arab states together have failed to do for decades. Israel has the best special services in the Middle East, one of the most extensive intelligence networks.
With Donald Trump coming to power, Israel’s positions in the Congress and the Administration have improved dramatically. Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Israel and the leading Arab monarchies have more enemies, which overshadows their previous discrepancies and fundamentally different stances on Palestine. They are ready for an intensive dialogue and coordination of actions, which may result in a completely new alliance on the reformatted Middle East map.
(1) Arab Peace Initiative was suggested by previous Saudi King Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz al-Saud in 2002. It provides for Israel to leave all the occupied territories of Palestine and restore the borders of 1967. Under the Initiative, Israel recognizes Palestine as a sovereign state with capital in East Jerusalem. Besides, the Initiative provides for fair settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem. If all these terms are fulfilled, the Arab countries will establish relations with Israel within comprehensive peace.
(2) Israel “is pushing” the United States and Russia to guarantee a buffer zone in southern Syria where Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias will not be allowed to operate, The Times reported referring to sources in the Middle East. According to the British newspaper, the Israelis have been present “on the sidelines of talks” in Amman between the Americans and the Russians to negotiate “the future of southern Syria.” According to the newspaper, a buffer zone would extend more than 30 miles east of the Golan Heights, well past the city of Deraa, which is the direct subject of the Russian-US talks. The zone would touch upon the town of Suweida that is under control of the government troops.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau