Here at TAI, we’ve been tracking a growing Saudi-Israeli détente since 2013. Usually (though not always) this has been a matter of looking for subtle clues or reading between the lines. But yesterday, officials from each nation appeared together in public to push a common line. As Eli Lake, writing at Bloomberg, reports:
Since the beginning of 2014, representatives from Israel and Saudi Arabia have had five secret meetings to discuss a common foe, Iran. On Thursday, the two countries came out of the closet by revealing this covert diplomacy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. […]
It was not a typical Washington think-tank event. No questions were taken from the audience. After an introduction, there was a speech in Arabic from Anwar Majed Eshki, a retired Saudi general and ex-adviser to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Then Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations who is slotted to be the next director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, gave a speech in English.
While these men represent countries that have been historic enemies, their message was identical: Iran is trying to take over the Middle East and it must be stopped.
At the end of May, Israeli PM Netanyahu made approving noises with regard to the Arab Peace Initiative—the framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace proposed by the late King of Saudi Arabia. Yesterday, the Saudi general named peace between the Arabs and Israel as the number one item on a seven point regional plan (number two was regime change in Iran), but added to Lake that Bibi needed to “accept” the API for it to happen. Thus the government of Saudi Arabia gets to protect itself against a public outcry, and can even argue it is pushing in a new—perhaps more effective—way for Palestinian rights, while the immediate work of building a united front with Israel against Iran continues.
To a large extent, American policymakers should rejoice at news like this: getting our Arab allies, led by the KSA, to play nicely with Israel and cooperate against regional enemies has been a longtime goal. However, it’s grimly ironic that it has been accomplished largely by a shared aversion on the part of the Arabs and Israelis to the Obama Administration’s policies. Consequently, while the immediate Saudi-Israeli goal is to enhance defenses against Iran and other destabilizing regional forces such as ISIS, the larger aim of this détente is also to make both countries less reliant on a U.S. they’ve come to think of as less reliable. Plus, Jerusalem and Riyadh probably hope that cooperation will enhance the pressure they can exert on the Administration regarding the forthcoming nuclear deal.
No other American president can point to this much cooperation between Arabs and Israelis taking place on his watch. The President is solving problems in the Middle East—if not necessarily the ones he intended.
Update: The Times of Israel is reporting that Saudi Gen. Eshki also gave an interview to Israeli Channel 10 News. While the substance of his remarks was largely similar to those he gave yesterday, in this case the medium—an Israeli television channel—may be the most important part of the Saudi message.