Reports of Israeli involvement in Egypt’s transfer of two uninhabited Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia in early April 2016 caused uproar in the Arab world in general and drew fierce protests from Egyptians in particular. But in Israel, it quietly shed light on the government’s secret and selective dealings with Saudi Arabia.
As analysts pondered the implications for Israel of Saudi control of the two islands, Tiran and Sanafir – which are located at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, an important shipping route for Israelis and Jordanians – Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon assured Israeli reporters that he had received official documentation that Saudi Arabia would continue to allow Israelis freedom of passage in the area. “We reached an agreement between the four parties – the Saudis, the Egyptians, Israel and the United States – to transfer the responsibility for the islands on the condition that the Saudis fill in the Egyptian shoes in the military appendix of the [Egypt-Israel] peace agreement,” he said.
In Egypt, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, told the media that his country would have no direct relations with Israel. He did, however, commit to honouring previous agreements between Egypt and the international community, a reference to the peace agreement.
On the surface, it would seem that Saudi Arabia and Israel would be archenemies and, indeed, they have never had diplomatic relations. After all, the Saudis have championed the Palestinian cause. Furthermore, the Israelis say they are besieged by Muslim extremists, and that many of these extremists are motivated by the intolerant, Wahhabi ideology that is born and bred in Saudi Arabia.
Yet these two old adversaries actually have a lot in common and have become the strangest of bedfellows. They have mutual goals when it comes to Hezbollah and Syria, for instance, but the main reason behind this rapprochement is probably their shared hostility toward Iran.
Signs of this rapprochement first became public at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington in June 2015, when former high-ranking Saudi and Israeli officials shared the stage for the first time and revealed that the two countries had been holding a series of secret meetings to discuss shared strategic goals, particularly around the perceived regional ascendance of Iran.
At the event, retired Saudi general Anwar Ishqi openly called for regime change in Iran, while Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and once a fierce critic of Saudi Arabia, spoke of his outreach to the country in recent years, and of the possibility of resolving the remaining differences between the two nations. He stated: “Our standing today on this stage does not mean we have resolved all the differences that our countries have shared over the years, but our hope is we will be able to address them fully in the years ahead.”
Similarly, Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief and one-time ambassador to Washington, took the unprecedented step of publishing an op-ed in a major Israeli newspaper calling for peace between Israel and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations, as well as for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the Obama administration has pursued detente with Iran in recent years, reports have surfaced suggesting covert security cooperation between Israel and GCC states.
On 5 May 2016, Prince Turki and Yaakov Amidror, a retired Israeli major general and former national security advisor to Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, spoke together in Washington DC at a discussion arranged by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel organisation funded by the AIPAC donors. The event, broadcast live online, showed that Saudi Arabia and Israel have finally come out of the closet, together.
Yet another manifestation of this now less-than-covert alliance came when Arabsat, which is partially owned by the Saudi government, stopped broadcasting al-Manar TV, a Hezbollah-owned television channel, in December 2015; and in March 2016, the Saudi-dominated GCC announced it was designating Hezbollah a terrorist organisation, adding fuel to the already tense relationship between the region’s Sunni Muslim monarchies and the Lebanese Shiite movement’s main ally, Iran. Hezbollah is, of course, both an enemy of Israel and viewed as one of Iran’s proxy groups in the region. The Saudi move will almost certainly become a subject of contention between the two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, because Hezbollah is actively engaged in propping up Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad.
Despite the growing signs of detente between Saudi Arabia and Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a thorny issue, at least on the surface.
“Building relations with these countries are obviously in Israel’s interests but unless the Palestinian issue is settled or at least there is an attempt to work toward peace, there will be a barrier,” Moshe Maoz, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem,” told the Washington Post. “All Arab and Muslim states are very sensitive about the Palestinian issue.”
During his meeting with Yaakov Amidror in May 2016, Prince Turki said that “Arab cooperation with Israel would improve if it could resolve its decades long disagreement with the Palestinians.” The prince returned to the issue repeatedly, criticising Israel’s presence in the West Bank and tying it to a wider Mideast peace. “There has to be a lifting of the occupation,” Turki said. “The Palestinians have to have their own country.”
But Amidror said it was the Palestinians who were sabotaging the process, arguing that it was a mistake for the Arab world to give the Palestinians the key to unlocking the relationship with Israel, since that effectively blocked progress.” Arab states, Amidror told Turki, should “cooperate with Israel instead of dictating to it.”