By: Ryan Bergal
For the first time in its history, Saudi Arabia is taking steps forward to establish official diplomatic relations with Israel. Just last week, Israeli Chief of Staff General Gadi Eisenknot, told London-based Saudi newspaper Elaph that Israel was ready to exchange intelligence with Saudi Arabia. The purpose of a Saudi-Israeli alliance would be to confront Iran, which is viewed as a common threat by both nations. Since Eisenknot’s statement, Saudi officials have made subtle overtures to show their gratitude to Israel by visiting a Jewish synagogue, in Paris, for the first time, signaling a start to an unlikely alliance. Israel, on the other hand, due to its political and cultural dynamics, has taken clearer steps to showcase its new-found ally in Saudi Arabia. Israeli Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz has clarified that Israel is starting to form ties with Saudi Arabia, but “the other side is interested in hiding it.” Regardless of discrepancies between the two parties’ willingness to be open about their unlikely alliance, this can change the scope of politics and diplomacy for the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are in a seemingly continuous struggle for power in the Middle East, and their hostility showcases the tension between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. Saudi Arabia is a predominantly Sunni state, while Iran has a Shia majority. Iran, in recent years, has gotten the upper hand in the battle for regional control, worsening regional tensions. Along with Russia, Iranian support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria has strengthened the Shia forces in the Middle East, threatening Saudi Arabia’s dominance. There is fear by both Saudi Arabia and Israel that Iran, along with other militant Shia groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, could come to possess nuclear weapons in the Middle East, creating further instability within the region. Israel has engaged in previous military conflicts with Shia groups, including a 2006 war against Hezbollah, which ended in a UN-brokered ceasefire. Essentially, both Israel and Saudi Arabia want to be protected from the threat of Iran and their sphere of Shia influence in the Middle East, and both parties can benefit working together.
Saudi Arabia would benefit from Israeli intelligence, military, and cyber expertise, which is significantly more advanced than that of any other Middle Eastern state, with the goal of preventing the Iranian threat from expanding. Normalization of relations between the two states would mean that Israel would have access to more trade within the Middle East. In addition to establishing economic ties with Saudi Arabia, Israel would also establish ties with other Arab League member nations, namely Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. This agreement would make Israel more economically and politically stable, Saudi Arabia better able to assert control over Iran, and both nations more secure in face of the threats of nuclear attacks from militant forces in the Middle East.
The only way that Saudi Arabia would finalize any agreements with Israel would be if Israel commits to makes tangible progress on peacemaking with Palestine, but several experts believe Saudi Arabia will be lenient on the terms of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, so they can join forces with Israel to stop Iran. Yaacov Nagel, a former national security advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claims that the Saudi government in Riyadh is so eager to take action against Iran that it will be willing to sign off on virtually any Israeli-Palestinian agreement, no matter how much it favors Israel. Former White House advisor Bruce Riedel also noted that Saudi Arabia will be anxious to form an alliance with Israel due to its “obsession with Iran.”
However, Saudi Arabia’s leeway on an Israel-Palestine agreement may be shrinking after the United States officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6th. Considering that the East Bank of Jerusalem is also the capital of Palestine, the Trump administration’s decision to view Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has been widely controversial. The Saudi government has called the maneuver “unjustified and irresponsible,” and as an Arab League member, the Saudi government will have to find a way to balance its allegiance to Palestine, while still working strategically to eliminate the threat of Iran. Due to these conflicting circumstances, it still may be quite some time before the diplomatic relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia shifts from secretive to public.