The relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia is hardly characterised by friendly cooperation. The two countries do not have any diplomatic relations, and Saudi Arabia has always supported the Palestinian side in peace negotiations.
But is that all changing in the face of a common enemy? The reports of a Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran are coming thick and fast. This weekend, the SundayTimes reported that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency is working with Saudi officials on contingency plans for a possible attack on Iran. An attack would be staged if a deal, expected to be signed by western powers and Iran in Geneva this week, is not seen to curb Iran’s nuclear programme sufficiently.
Despite their long-standing animosity towards each other, both the Israeli and Saudi governments believe that international talks – which are focusing on limiting Tehran’s capability to develop nuclear weapons – risk giving Iran too much leeway to secretly build a warhead. In a speech to the UN earlier this year, Israeli Prime Minister warned that Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and that the world should not be fooled by his diplomatic charm offensive. This view is shared by Saudi Arabia, an Arab, Sunni power which is engaged in a regional cold war with the Persian, Shi’ite nation of Iran. Concerns over the apparent thawing towards Iran by the US caused Saudi officials to say last month that they were reconsidering relations with their old ally, America.
So what form would this alleged cooperation take? According to the Sunday Times, Riyadh has already given the go-ahead for Israeli planes to use its airspace in the event of an attack on Iran. The newspaper also quoted a diplomatic source as saying the Saudis were willing to assist an Israeli attack by cooperating on the use of drones, rescue helicopters and tanker planes. “Once the Geneva agreement is signed, the military option will be back on the table,” the source told the Times.
While both governments have denied that any such cooperation is taking place, Netanyahu said in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro on Saturdaythat there is a “meeting of minds” between Israel and the “leading states in the Arab world” on the question of Iran’s nuclear capability. He said that this was “one of the few cases in memory, if not the first case in modern times”, adding: “We all think that Iran should not be allowed to have the capacities to make nuclear weapons. We all think that a tougher stance should be taken by the international community.”
The Saudi government has issued a statement stressing that it has no relations or contact of any kind with Israel. Yet the speculation continues, with the story picked by all of Israel’s major newspapers.
Of course, neither nation is likely to admit to such a deal, even if it does exist. Questions have been raised about the possible implications for Saudi-Israeli relations on other issues. Notably, Saudi Arabia produced a multilateral peace plan for Israel and Palestine in 2002. Based on withdrawal, it was adopted by the Arab League. Israel has never responded to it.
But if a deal over Iran has taken place, it is a pragmatic decision based on a mutual enemy that surpasses immediate animosity, rather than on a genuine trust or inclination to draw closer together on other issues. Such an arrangement is taking behind closed doors rather than forming any part of official policy, and has not been reflected in any of the typical signs of diplomatic thawing, such as the opening of embassies on each other’s soil. Writing in the Ha’aretz newspaper, Tom Philips, former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2010-12) and to Israel (2006-10), said that despite parallels between the two nations, the relationship was still characterised by mutual suspicion. He warned that Israel should not “make too much of the similarity of their and Saudi interests on the Iranian front”, adding that although it may have been pushed down the agenda in recent months, “the Palestinian cause remains a sacred one” for the Saudis.
In his interview with Le Figaro, Netanyahu warned that the world’s leaders should sit up and pay attention “when Israel and the Arabs see eye-to-eye.” It seems that France – widely thought to have blocked the deal from being signed earlier this month – has the same view. Whether other international powers will agree remains to be seen in Geneva this week.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.