The emerging alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia against their common enemy – Iran came to light since Israel’s IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Gadi Eizenkot gave few interviews to the independent Saudi newspaper Elaph last month (Jerusalem Post, 2 Dec 2017; Jerusalem Post, 16 Nov 2017). In the middle of November, he stated that there are many shared interests between the two countries and admitted that Israel has offered to share intelligence about Iran with Riyadh and other moderate Arab states:
“We are ready to exchange experiences with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries and exchange intelligence information to confront Iran. … There are many shared interests between us and Saudi Arabia.” (As cited in Jerusalem Post, 16 Nov 2017).
Riyadh has not publicly confided in the mending diplomatic fences though. The Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, told Egypt’s CBC television:
“There are no relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. There is the Arab peace initiative, which shows the road map to reach peace and establish normal [ties] between Israel and Arab states.” (Jerusalem Post, 2 Dec 2017).
Despite this denial, there are few reasons to suggest that Saudi Arabia is interested in the alliance not less than Israel.
Growing Power of Iran
The war against the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq strengthened Iran’s positions. The alliance of predominantly Shiite Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese and Iranian forces together with Russia defeated IS Sunnites. Iranian military advisers successfully commanded some units of the Iraqi Shiite army and effectively influenced the outcome of the war. This brought a powerful position in the region to Iran. As of today, Iran allies with Assad’s regime in Iraq and Syria. In Yemen – a neighborough country with Saudi Arabia, Iran supports the Shiite Houthi rebels. And in Lebanon, it backs the Shiite Hezbollah (GPF, 29 Nov 2017).
All three: Assad’s regime, Houthis and Hezbollah are enemies to both Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Why is the new geopolitical situation insecure for Israel and Saudi Arabia?
According to the analytical magazine Geopolitical Futures, Israel was fairly safe while radical Sunnite and Shiite forces were fighting with each other in Syria. However, they may now turn their focus on Israel again (GPF, 1 Dec 2017). Though, from the two options, Assad is less evil for Israel than ISIS but still an enemy. Take also into account that ISIS forces are dispersed but not completely defeated. What is worse for Israelis and Saudis is that Hezbollah, backed by both Iran and Assad, has strengthened its positions. (GPF, 1 Dec 2017).
In this context, warming relations of Israel with Saudi Arabia look very well-minded. However, yet the situation in the region is not as insecure for Israel as it may seem. Hezbollah is an enemy but Israel used to deal with Hezbollah for many years. Iran’s military achievements threaten Israel more than during the war in Syria. Nevertheless, it is not to Tehran’s benefit to confronting with Israel right now because this would lead to the renewal of sanctions imposed on Iran by the West (GPF 1 Dec 2017).
When it comes to Saudi Arabia, the relations between Sunni Saudis and Shiite Iranians have been hostile since the Iranian revolution (GPF 1 Dec 2017). Now, the struggle for the regional power between Riyadh and Tehran has intensified (Jerusalem Post 29 Nov 2017). Saudi Arabia is Iran’s regional rival but the decline of oil price has weakened the economic and political stability of Riyadh. And hence, the ability to protect itself from Iran (GPF 1 Dec 2017).
Thus, Saudi Arabia reckons on getting a strong player in the region to stand up Shiites. Therefore, it needs Israel in confronting growing power of Iran.
However, the alliance is beneficial for Israel as well. By establishing a dialogue with Arabic countries, Israel is legitimising its legal status in the Arab world.
It is not for nothing that Israel has recently changed its attitude to some former adversaries, stating that there is no more Arab coalition against Israel but those who are for and against peace.
For example, in June 2017, former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stated that
“We and the Arabs, the same Arabs who organized in a coalition in the Six-Day War to try to destroy the Jewish state, today find themselves in the same boat with us … The Sunni Arab countries, apart from Qatar, are largely in the same boat with us since we all see a nuclear Iran as the number one threat against all of us.” (Jewish Press 5 June 2017)
In the new geopolitical context, Israel is trying to get partners among non-extremist states, even though they are former adversaries. Just because Israel regards that former discords are less endangering than current extremism.
Israel could stand alone day-to-day terrorist attacks and few wars with neighbours in the past. However, may a broad-scale terrorism or a marginal aggression from a coalition of adversaries happen, Israel needs allies. This became especially relevant with a possibility of an escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Third Intifada) following Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
The question is how much can both Saudi Arabia and Israel, busy with their own problems, help each other, may the conflict either with Iran or other their adversaries happen? They need to look for more allies. However, U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israeli capital has narrowed down the choice of prospective candidates.
Geopolitical Futures [online], Iran Reshapes the Middle East (29 November 2017), available at: https://geopoliticalfutures.com/iran-reshapes-middle-east/ [accessed: 03/12/2017]
Geopolitical Futures [online], A Complex Dynamic Between Israel and Iran (1 December 2017), available at: https://geopoliticalfutures.com/complex-dynamic-israel-iran/ [accessed: 04/12/2017]
Jerusalem Post [online], IDF Chief of Staff: Israel willing to share intelligence with Saudis by Anna Anronheim (16 November, 2017), available at: http://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/IDF-Chief-of-Staff-Israel-willing-to-share-intelligence-with-Saudis-514438[accessed: 03/12/2017]
Jerusalem Post [online], Saudi Arabia vs Iran (29 November, 2017), available at: http://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report/Saudi-Arabia-vs-Iran-515511 [accessed: 04/12/2017]
Jerusalem Post [online], Inside The Prospective Israel-Saudi Arabia Rapprochement (2 December 2017), available at: http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Inside-The-Prospective-Israel-Saudi-Arabia-Rapprochement-515801 [accessed: 03/12/2017]
Jewish Post [online], Ya’alon: No More Arab Coalition Against Us, Also Containment Is Victory (5 June 2017), available at: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/eye-on-palestine/yaalon-no-more-arab-coalition-against-us-also-containment-is-victory/2017/06/05/ [accessed: 05/12/2017]
Article by Diana Mykhaylova
Photograph – The New York Times