Opinion | The Surprising MbS-Netanyahu Connection

Will Saudi Arabia ever be Israel’s true ally?
By | Aug 26, 2019
2019 September/October, World

Israel has hoped throughout its history to be accepted by its neighbors, no matter how remote the prospect has seemed at times. David Ben-Gurion famously despaired of ever achieving a rapprochement with the Arabs. Shimon Peres devoted much of his career to one seemingly quixotic initiative after another. A golden age of new diplomatic ties and contacts followed the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, only to fade as the peace process decayed and ended following the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.

How ironic, then, that the silver age of Arab-Israeli diplomacy is underway now, when Israeli politics has been dominated by right-wing coalitions with little interest in changing the status quo with the Palestinians. The warming trend has many causes, among them Arab impatience with the Palestinian leadership, a desire to win plaudits from the Trump administration, a shared antipathy to Iran and a recognition that Israel has much to offer, especially in intelligence and high-tech. Connections are multiplying between the Jewish state and countries in the region—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and perhaps most surprising of all, Saudi Arabia, the country that long intimated it would be the last to make peace with Israel.

The Kingdom’s new posture is a dramatic change. Although Saudis and Israelis collaborated against Nasser’s forces during Yemen’s civil war in the 1960s, King Faisal, who reigned from 1964 to 1975, was one of the Middle East’s last truly anti-Semitic leaders; his fury at U.S. support for Israel led to the oil embargo of the 1970s. Through its aggressive global promotion of Wahhabi Islam, especially after the 1979 Iranian revolution, Saudi Arabia was a major fount of anti-Semitism, churning out vast amounts of educational material in which Christians and Jews are denigrated as the descendants of pigs and monkeys. Although the Saudis were angered by the Israeli rejection of King Abdullah’s Arab Peace Plan of 2000, common enmity with Iran has since led to a less rancorous relationship, with Israel’s U.S. supporters withdrawing their opposition to advanced arms sales to the Saudis.

The rapid rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has accelerated the warming. MbS has said publicly that the Israelis “have the right to have their own land” and that diplomatic relations with Israel could benefit the Saudis. In a private meeting with Jewish leaders in New York last year, MbS reportedly excoriated the Palestinians for missing key opportunities. Thus far, MbS’s father, King Salman, has played the counterweight, dampening speculation that the Saudis would abandon their advocacy of the Palestinian cause by saying that Saudi Arabia “permanently stands by Palestine and its people’s right to an independent state with occupied East Jerusalem as its capital.”

That balancing act reveals changing circumstances. At a time when MbS’s reform program both excites and worries many in the Kingdom—its key goals include diversifying the economy away from energy production and getting Saudis to take low-status jobs historically held by foreign workers—too much of a tilt toward Israel and away from the Palestinians, whose plight remains a concern of ordinary Muslims, would be deeply unpopular. That has led to some odd twists in this curious relationship between longtime foes. Israeli electronic surveillance firms have reportedly been retained to help the Kingdom identify dissenters, and the Saudis participated in Jared Kushner’s economic workshop in Bahrain to promote investment in the Palestinian territories. Saudi participation gave cover to several other Arab countries to attend the event and infuriated the Palestinians, who view any support for the Kushner plan as a betrayal because it is not expected to include a diplomatic path to an independent Palestinian state. 

For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies, the chance to create a wedge between the Palestinians and one of their historic backers is a powerful political prize. At least as attractive is the creation of a bloc of nations that overcomes the traditional Arab-Israeli divide to cooperate against Iran. Accordingly, Netanyahu has argued against taking harsh measures against the young Saudi leader for his role in the murder last year of journalist Jamal Khashoggi—a sentiment aimed at Congress, where Israel has plenty of sway and Saudi Arabia much less. Despite that significant favor, at the UN’s Economic and Social Council in July, Saudi Arabia joined 39 other countries in singling out Israel for violating the rights of women through the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

To Netanyahu, such barbs are a small price for a diplomatic revolution in the making. Many would disagree. Getting too close to MbS is morally hazardous, argued a recent essay by Zachary Shapiro published in the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Shapiro, a Council on Foreign Affairs researcher, likens embracing MbS, whose misbegotten military campaign in Yemen has turned that country into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, to Israel’s ill-fated relationship with Idi Amin. The onetime Ugandan strongman, who trained in Israel as a paratrooper and once idealized the country, soured on it and ultimately gave refuge to the Palestinian hijackers and the Air France flight they commandeered in 1976, which prompted Israel’s famous Entebbe raid. A deeper relationship with MbS, in Shapiro’s view, threatens to leave Israel with a stain that won’t soon fade.

For all the talk, though, immediate change is less likely than meets the eye. It is tempting to think that monarchies and autocracies can change policies quickly to suit their rulers’ whims. In fact, as the Saudi leadership struggles to deal with a fast-growing population and an economy that can ill afford its citizens’ lavish benefits, its room for maneuver on Israel is limited. And despite wishful thinking, no one suggests that formal diplomatic ties are around the corner. While the atmosphere may become more congenial, a reshaping of the Middle East will take a good deal longer. 

Daniel Benjamin is Director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth. He was Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2012.

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