With every passing day, we see more signaling coming out of the Middle East of some kind of rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Wall Street Journal:
After launching into a tirade about the malicious designs of their perfidious foe, three Saudi academics and analysts on separate recent occasions began by pronouncing “Israel”—and then, catching their error of habit mid-word, corrected themselves to say “Iran.”
The custodian of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has long preached the message of Islamic unity, albeit on its own terms. That message has traditionally included hostility to Israel, widely seen as the usurper of Islam’s third holiest shrine, in Jerusalem.
Now, however, the Saudis are finding themselves in an unusual and somewhat uncomfortable position of, if not empathizing with Israel, at least relating to it. Years of sectarian carnage in Syria and Iraq have turned public opinion in Saudi Arabia and many other Arab countries solidly against Iran and against its most powerful Arab ally, the Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
These days, official government spokesmen in the Saudi capital Riyadh frequently draw a parallel between the pro-Iranian Houthi militia that Saudi Arabia is fighting in Yemen and Hezbollah. They say one Saudi objective in the war is to prevent the Houthis in Yemen from establishing a state-within-a-state like the one Hezbollah has carved out in southern Lebanon.
Some questions that spring to mind: Will Benjamin Netanyahu be willing and able to move on Palestinian issues enough to legitimize a higher level of public collaboration between the two countries? Are the saudis and the Israelis both using these statements as ways of raising pressure on Washington at a critical time, or do these public statements point to an even greater level of cooperation behind the scenes that we don’t (yet) see?
There are a lot of reasons why Israel and the Saudis might limit their cooperation, but it is also important not to underestimate the degree of concern in both countries about Iran and about the Obama administration’s Iran policy. When countries face existential threats, they often take steps that would be unthinkable in other circumstances.