Last week, a number of Middle East mass media came out with sensational news: a Saudi delegation has paid a confidential visit to Israel. They received that news from their Israeli colleagues, who referred to a source in the UAE intelligence. The sensation was that the delegation was led by Crown Prince and Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman.
The 32-year-old Salman is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. If the UAE informer is actually reliable – for it is really strange to see Israeli mass media referring to a foreign source for reporting a visit to their own country – in Israel, Salman had a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The details are not known. The only thing we know is that the visit was a result of growing pressure on Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel.
Saudi Arabia and Israel have no diplomatic relations. And even though their last years’ antagonism against Iran has made them de facto partners, the problem of Palestine does not let them turn their episodic secret contacts into official relations.
It is not a secret who is “pressuring” Saudi Arabia to “recognize Israel” (to recognize Israel de jure and to establish diplomatic relations with that state). It is the current U.S. Administration with its strategy to create an anti-Iranian alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Donald Trump and his Middle East team are committed to adopt a more aggressive strategy against Iran. But Salman’s visit was hardly a step towards a United States-Israel-Saudi Arabia anti-Iranian alliance.
According to the UAE source, the visit had some financial-economic implications, more specifically, Salman visited Israel in order to ask the Israelis to help him on international financial markets. The Saudis urgently need free funds so as to be able to resist the low oil prices, to meet their investment obligations and to solve their domestic social problems. IMF and WB loans would help them in the matter but they will hardly get them unless they officially recognize Israel.
What really matters in this news is not the very fact of Salman’s visit to Israel (especially that this is not a fact) but the time when this rumor was spread. The visit reportedly took place in early Sept but was made public after Netanyahu’s statement about a renaissance in his country’s relations with the Arab world. On Sept 6, he said that today they are better than ever before. And the news about Salman’s visit emerged on Sept 10.
When Mohammed Bin Salman was appointed as Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, a U.S. diplomat, U.S. Ambassador to Israel in 2011-2017 and White House Middle East advisor in 2008-2011 Daniel Shapiro said that it was like a “dream come true for Israel.”
Today, Israel’s dream to have Saudi Arabia as a reliable partner seems to be coming true as the two Middle East powers have one common ground - common enmity towards Iran. So, unless the Israelis turn this common enmity into a practice anti-Iranian policy, their “dream” will remain an abstraction.
The news about Salman’s visit appeared exactly at the time when Israel made a number of tough statements against Iran. The Israelis will not tolerate Iranian presence along its borders with Lebanon and Syria. On Sept 12, Netanyahu told CNN about the Iranians’ plans “to colonize Syria the way they colonized Lebanon.” He said that just a week before his Sept 18 visit to Washington.
In its comment on the visit last Friday, the Jerusalem Post said that Russia has declined Israel’s request to create a 60-km buffer zone between the Golan Heights on the Israeli-Syrian border and the positions of pro-Iranian groups in Syria. According to the source, the Russians have just promised that the Shia fighters will not approach the Israeli border closer than 5 km.
So, having come back empty-handed from Sochi (after the Aug 23 meeting with Putin), Netanyahu hurried to Washington.
So, if we put all the abovementioned episodes together into one plotline, we will see that the key goal of the Israelis’ recent fibs and tough rhetoric is to ensure an efficient confrontation with Iran. They have managed to involve Saudi Arabia and the United States in this game but they are unable to convince Russia. And their goal is not just to restrain the Iranians with some bellicose statements but to actively use the triple (Saudi-Israeli-American) alliance against them.
Salman’s visit has made the quick anti-Iranian pulse in the region even quicker. This may prove quite dangerous for Saudi Arabia as after the Qatari crisis, that country has become much more vulnerable than before. Netanyahu’s secret meeting with Salman in Israel is like a story from some geopolitical fiction book. This may be possible one day but not now.
The previous contacts between the Saudis and the Israelis have been semi-official and low-ranked. The highest level so far has been contacts between foreign ministers or foreign intelligence chiefs.
The first such meeting took place in June 2016, when a Saudi delegation led by retired general, former government advisor, Director of the Jeddah-based Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies Anwar Eshki visited Israel. It was just a delegation of academicians and businessmen, who came to exchange views with their Israeli colleagues. They had meetings with Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai, and several Knesset members from the opposition. Their goal was to promote the Arab Peace Initiative to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (1).
It was not Eshki’s first meeting with Gold. The two met in the United States in summer 2015 at the time that the nuclear deal with Iran was entering its final stage. It was then that the Israeli-Saudi anti-Iranian alliance took shape. The Israelis were unable to prevent the deal but they found a partner for restraining Iran in the region.
Since then the U.S. Administration has changed and now Israel is much closer to its goal. It was the first to support the situational Arab quartet (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrein and the United Arab Emirates) when it slated Qatar for its contacts with Iran. The Gulf monarchies are seeking to push Iran out of several Middle East countries and Israel is on their side as their share its principle “what is bad for the Iranians is good for us.” But there still are questions where the sides are far from unanimity. Next Monday, the Iraqi Kurds are holding an independence referendum. The Israelis have turned out to be the only Middle East nation to support this initiative and here too their key motive was that the Iranians are against the referendum.
This suggests certain conclusions: on Aug 23, Vladimir Putin said neither “yes” nor “no” to Netanyahu’s entreaties to exert pressure on Iran (by the way, in an interview to The Jerusalem Post, Israeli officials denied that Netanyahu asked the Kremlin and the White House to create a 60-km buffer zone on the Israeli-Syrian border) and the Israelis decided to spread rumors that Salman has visited Israel and that he is faced with growing U.S. pressure. So as not to let the Iranians relax, the Israeli army reminded them about its recent air strikes in Syria (2).
This Monday, Netanyahu is going to Washington to find out what exactly Trump is going to do in the framework of his more aggressive anti-Iranian strategy. A few days ago, Trump promised that in Oct 2017, Iran will face the first displays of that strategy. Speaking of the nuclear deal, he said: ““We are not going to stand for what they’re doing to this country. They have violated so many different elements, but they’ve also violated the spirit of that deal. And you will see what we’ll be doing in October. It will be very evident.”
Trump did not specify what exactly he would do. He will probably tell this to Netanyahu on Sept 18. But the Israeli Prime Minister is not going to be just a listener. He is committed to be one of the authors of the strategy or at least its main “external advisor.”
(1) The Arab Peace Initiative was proposed by the previous King of Saudi Arabia Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in 2002. It stipulates withdrawal of Israeli troops from all occupied Palestinian territories and return to the borders of 1967. It obliges Israel to recognize Palestine and its capital, East Jerusalem and to fairly solve the problem Palestinian refugees. If Israel meets all of these obligations, the Arab states will no longer regard that country as an enemy and will establish diplomatic relations with it.
(2) On Sept 7, the Israeli air forces attacked a factory near Masyaf, the west of the Hama Governorate. According to the Israeli intelligence, that governmental facility was making components for Syrian chemical weapons. The attack came from the air space of Lebanon and was followed by more attacks. The strikes were to show who is the “boss” in Lebanon’s air and what may happen to Lebanon in case of a new war with the local Hezbollah Movement.
EADaily ’s Middle East Bureau