by Emile Nakhleh
Saudi-Israeli relations, especially between their intelligence services, started several years back under the direction of Bandar bin Sultan, a former Saudi ambassador to Washington and a former director of the Saudi national security council.
These relations, however, accelerated significantly during the P5+1 negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal, and especially since Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) became the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia and Israel joined forces in a vigorous lobbying campaign in Washington to thwart the nuclear deal, to no avail. Despite failing to derail it, they have since collaborated closely to undermine the agreement and demonise Iran. Their claims that Iran has violated the conditions imposed on it under the deal have not been recognised by international observers or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
With MbS’ dramatic rise to power, bellicose attitude towards Iran and more recently Hezbollah, along with the failing war in Yemen, and his unabashed power grab in the kingdom under the guise of fighting corruption, he once again has joined forces with the Israelis to halt the spread of a “Shia Crescent” in the Middle East.
MbS naively thinks that an alternative “Sunni Crescent” could constrain Iran’s regional stature and influence, or would be more palatable to western audiences and policymakers, including Israel’s right-wing government.
The Saudi crown prince’s anti-Iran campaign has been welcomed by Israel, especially since MbS expanded his rabid anti-Shia front to include Hezbollah and Lebanon.
By accusing tiny Lebanon of declaring war on Saudi Arabia – a patently ludicrous claim – MbS hopes to cement his relations with the Israelis, as they consider Lebanon their backyard and Hezbollah their mortal enemy.
Saudi intelligence contacts with Israel’s external intelligence service – the Mossad – are part of the expanding relations between Israeli intelligence and the other GCC countries, especially Bahrain and the UAE.
Intelligence-sharing between Saudi Arabia and Israel started hesitantly and surreptitiously in the 1990s but expanded significantly and more publicly since the turn of the century.
Both countries pursued the collaboration out of self-interest. Terrorism and counter-terrorism, particularly concerning the rise and regional and global reach of al-Qaeda, were the primary concerns. Israel focused on Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Gulf. Both countries were involved in countering the rising tide of radicalism and militancy, and combating “terrorist” groups.
Muhammad bin Nayef (MbN), then deputy Saudi minister of interior and son of the powerful minister of interior, Nayef bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, became the face of Saudi Arabia’s battle against radicalisation and terrorism, especially among Saudi youth. George Tenet, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote the following of MbN in his book At the Center of the Storm:
“MBN, as we called him, became my most important interlocutor. A relatively young man, he is someone in whom we developed a great deal of trust and respect. Many of the successes in rolling up al-Qaeda in the kingdom are a result of his courageous efforts.”
I had a meeting with MbN at his palace in Riyadh several years ago to discuss his counter-terrorism programme. I too was impressed by his commitment to the fight against terrorism, globally and regionally.
Israeli intelligence also became interested in Saudi efforts to combat terrorism and began to make overtures to MbN through Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, then the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
MbN, like more than 200 wealthy Saudis, including many members of the ruling family, is currently under house arrest.
Bandar emerged as a critical conduit in the growing Saudi-Israeli intelligence cooperation, which initially focused on fighting extremist Sunni groups in northern Lebanon.
The focus was later shifted to Hezbollah and the tripartite alliance between Iran, Assad and Hezbollah. Collaboration slowed during the 2006 Lebanon war. Hezbollah emerged from the war as the perceived winner by the “Arab Street”, which of course dismayed Israel and concerned Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.
Photographs of Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, were plastered across the Arab world. One Egyptian told me at the time: “There are more pictures of Hassan Nasrallah in Egypt than of Hosni Mubarak!”
Saudi-Israeli Political Relations
Although still nascent, the so-called emerging Saudi-Israeli “alliance” is one of convenience and shared interests. Both Riyadh and Tel Aviv seem to follow the adage: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This was, of course, epitomised by Winston Churchill’s Second World War alliance with Stalin against Hitler.
The Saudi crown prince has embarked on an activist foreign policy that pits Riyadh against Tehran and its allies across the region. Unlike the kingdom’s traditionally “quietist” foreign policy – which it pursued since its founding – MbS is forging a new and unprecedented foreign policy that overtly, forcefully and aggressively targets Iran’s spreading influence across the Arab world.
In his effort to undermine the Iranian, Persian, Shia corridor of influence that runs from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean, MbS is forming coalitions and alliances with traditional Sunni states and with Israel and the Trump administration.
Let’s be clear: This alliance-building strategy aims solely and primarily at serving the interests of Saudi Arabia, not the Arab nation, not Arab nationalism, and certainly not the Palestinian cause. This strategy of cosying up to the Jewish state is also fraught with many insurmountable challenges.
MbS’ envisioned rapprochement with Israel cannot possibility endure unless he and his American partner, Jared Kushner, help conclude a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
MbS’ credibility in the Arab world and the wider Muslim world will be severely tested unless he persuades the Netanyahu government to end the occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and provide a just solution to this intractable conflict.
The key question is: What will happen to this rapprochement if Prime Minister Netanyahu is indicted on charges of corruption and forced to leave office? Will a new leader pursue the same confrontational attitude toward Iran?
Assuming Netanyahu survives his ongoing legal troubles, what is the nature of the quid pro quo understanding, which Kushner expects to reach with Muhammad bin Salman for leaning on his Israeli friends to settle the conflict?
The Achilles heel of MbS’ anti-Iran strategy is that it is predicated on the military option, not on diplomacy.
Yet, unless Tehran perceives an imminent threat of a tripartite American-Saudi-Israeli war on the horizon, it will not seriously consider a change in its regional strategic calculus.
Although President Trump and Jared Kushner are publicly supportive of MbS’ brazen actions – including his disastrous war in Yemen – and although Israeli politicians are clamouring for a public alliance with the Saudis, Washington and Tel Aviv are not sanguine about yet another war in the region.
Intelligence services in both countries are becoming more wary of MbS’ brash overreach.
What complicates this situation even further is the absence of American diplomacy. Neither US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson nor any other senior American diplomat is working to defuse the warmongering in the Gulf. On the contrary, American diplomatic disengagement seems to embolden Muhammad bin Salman and his sycophantic advisers in their appetite for war with Iran.
Iran has never kowtowed to Saudi Arabia and is not about to start just because the young crown prince says it should. Oil, water and other components of the Saudi infrastructure would suffer heavily should war erupt between the two rivals.
The Muslim world will experience unprecedented and perhaps irreparable sectarian fissures between Sunni and Shia Islam. Such a development would cause untold damage to American national security and interests in the region.
Other important questions: What if MbS fails in his power struggle within the Al Saud family, and what if the arrests and assets shakedown that he ordered of hundreds of wealthy Saudis in the name of fighting corruption backfire, and he loses his levers of power?
If Jared Kushner is snared in the Mueller Russia investigation and leaves the West Wing, what will happen to MbS’ Iran strategy?
As western and Israeli intelligence services examine the crown prince’s tenuous hold on power, it’s safe to assume that they must be pondering a recommendation to their policy leaders to take a more cautious attitude toward his seemingly limitless bravado and loose talk about another regional war.
Whether in the Gulf or on the Israeli-Lebanese border, America and the world cannot afford another Middle East war.
Reprinted, with permission, from The New Arab. Photo: Bandar bin Sultan