Why are the Israelis and the Saudis Cosying Up?

Arab Gulf states have reportedly offered to take concrete steps to establish better relations with Israel if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make a significant overture aimed at restarting the Middle East peace process, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Arab countries suggest taking steps such as establishing direct telecommunication lines between Israel and some of the Arab countries, permitting Israeli airlines to fly over the airspace of Gulf states and abolishing trade limitations with Israel. Additional normalization steps being weighed include the granting of visas to Israeli athletes and business people interested in visiting Gulf states.

In return, the Sunni states are demanding that the Netanyahu government take significant steps to advance the peace process with the Palestinians, in particular the freezing of construction outside settlement blocs.

This is no small matter. Israel and the Arab Gulf States don't have diplomatic relations. The later don't even recognize Israel as a state. The initiative comes against a backdrop of improving relations between Israel and Sunni Gulf states in the past few years, driven by shared concerns of Iran has brought the sides closer together.

These relations, short of an explicit alliance, are an expression of realpolitik rather than shared values or of deep intimacy. However, Israelis, Saudis and Emiratis, underpinned by shared perceptions of threats to be countered and interests to be realised, have been cooperating covertly on security and intelligence matters for some time. A senior Arab official taking part in the discussions was quoted as saying, “We no longer see Israel as an enemy, but a potential opportunity.”

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For both Israel and the Gulf States, the nuclear deal with Iran signed in July 2015 has done little to curb Iran’s regional conduct or indeed its longer term nuclear ambitions. Another motivation that bring the sides closer relates to disagreements with the Obama administration over its Middle East policies and deep concerns that in the long run their main security guarantor will lessen its commitment to their security and further decrease its military and diplomatic leverage across the region.

05_18_Saudi_Isael_01 Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (center), flanked by Oman's Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi (left) and Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa at a meeting of Gulf foreign ministers in the Saudi capital Riyadh, on May 17, 2017, a few days ahead of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit. The summit will be one of three forums held during a visit by US President Donald Trump, who is making Saudi Arabia his first overseas stop since assuming office in January. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty

Although Relations between the sides warmed up in recent years, they are anything but new. Oman and Qatar, whether it was to find favor in the eyes of the Americans or to anger the Saudis, established official relations, albeit partial ones, with Israel.

Israel opened missions in both countries, but the second intifada in 2000 and Operation "Cast Lead" in Gaza led to their closure. However, it seems that, particularly Saudi Arabia, is now more willing to acknowledge its ongoing dialogue with Israel, if only to test how its public will react to more overt relations. It already got the attention of Iran and Hezbollah.

This new openness, that carries quite a bit of political symbolism, is gradually breaking a long-held taboo that any Saudi, let alone one identified so closely with the ruling family, could ever appear in public with their erstwhile foe.

These days, one does not have to look hard to find opinion pieces by senior Israelis or Saudis in each other’s media outlets. State-run media in the Gulf appears to be softening its reporting on Israel, running columns floating the prospect of direct relations, quoting Israeli officials and filling its news holes with fewer negative stories on Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians.

The outspoken Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was also very candid speaking about the startling relations of Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, custodian of Islam's holiest sites, and the Jewish state and noted that "for the first time, Saudi Arabian interests and Israel are almost parallel… It's incredible."

Faced with crumbling Middle East state order, Israel is, again, actively looking to form ties with states and non-state actors, some even former enemies. While in the past they stood in the shadows of others, the Gulf states too have adopted a more assertive foreign policy needed to confront regional changes. It remains unclear, however, if the two sides will be willing to take the same foreign policy risks, this time towards each other, to realize the full potential of their relations.  

Saudi officials make clear that unless Israel is willing to engage seriously with the Arab Peace Initiative and with it, tangible progress towards realising Palestinian self-determination, overt ties with Jerusalem will hardly move beyond the symbolic handshakes at academic symposia. Netanyahu too remains hamstrung, politically as well as ideologically by a domestic constituency unwilling to accept substantive territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

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Internal constraints on all sides will continue to determine the type and intensity of external engagement. Indeed, neither side is willing to pay the price needed to realize the strategic potential inherent in their relations. Both sides are benefiting from the advantages of covert ties without having to pay a political price for pulling them out of the closet.

These relations, for the most part, been shaped by its lowest common denominator, the perceived threat from Tehran, while sidestepping perhaps the more intractable issue of Palestinian statehood.

Whether, over time, the contours of the regime can foster the confidence building measures that will be required to reach a formal treaty satisfactory to all sides will, in truth, be the real test of its leverage beyond the immediate purchase of hard security. For now, all concerned remain the best of adversaries.

Yoel Guzansky is a Hoover Research Fellow and Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and the Israel Institute.

Clive Jones holds a Chair in Regional Security of the Middle East, Durham University.

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