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Does Saudi Arabia need relations with Israel?

September 6, 2016 at 9:58 am

Saudi Arabia needs neither relations nor normalisation with Israel, but why is this question becoming relevant? And why is it being asked so often at a time when interest in the Palestinian cause has declined, which also means a decline in the interest in the question regarding relations with Israel? At the moment, Saudi Arabia’s priorities revolve around two essential issues: economic reform and security threats from Iranian expansion and the collapse of neighbouring countries; Israel has no direct role, and it should not be a partner, in either of these issues.

The reason for asking this question is that a retired Saudi major general volunteered to visit Israel recently. His visit was followed by a number of articles published in a big Saudi newspaper which looked into the benefits of normalisation and having relations with Israel. Thus, international media and research centres started checking the question and some went as far as to say that there is a breakthrough in relations between the two countries, while others spread rumours of meetings that have never taken place between high-ranking Saudi and Israeli officials.

Suppose for the sake of the argument that Saudi Arabia put aside its Islamic symbolism and position as protector of the Two Holy Mosques; ignored its history and previous positions which demand the return of Palestinian and Arab rights; and brushed aside its strict rejection of any meetings with Israeli officials, including those at embassy level, where numerous Israeli diplomats have said that Saudis are the only Arabs who abstain from any relations at all with Israel.

Consider for a second that Riyadh has put all that aside and taken the advice of the retired Major General and Siham Al-Qahtani who wrote five articles in Al-Jazeera newspaper in which she discussed normalisation (and concluded that it would be a source of salvation), and that another high-ranking Saudi official met with his Israeli counterpart in Israel or any Arab country — and there are many which would be keen to host such a meeting — what would the kingdom gain, and what would Israel offer in return?

As I said, Riyadh is busy with economic reform and security threats, and so I expect that someone will suggest that, “Israel will offer support to Riyadh in these two things, and it will use its supposed influence stretching from Moscow to Washington, and finally it will make some concessions to the Palestinians and that would be the icing on the normalisation cake.”

On the issue of economic reform, there is nothing that Israel can offer. All interests, experiences and markets needed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are available elsewhere. Even if we assume that there are no other alternatives and that we had to buy an advanced Israeli device for a strategic Saudi project, there are thousands of third parties who would be willing to buy it and re-export it to Riyadh, so we can put the issue of economic reform to one side. What’s left is the security threat, which is usually proposed by Saudis advocating normalisation. To be honest, there are only a few of them, but the fact that their articles get published in semi-official newspapers, perhaps as part of some media openness, has given them more attention than they deserve.

There is not much that Israel can do for us here; rather, it would be a burden, as we’re gathering around us Islamic and Arab coalitions. Even countries that have normalised relations with Israel such as Egypt, Turkey and Jordan, and other countries which have started to have relations and offices with Israel began to do so in a bilateral manner for mutual interests; they are not allies with Israel against a third party, especially if that party is Muslim, such as Iran. The worst thing Riyadh can be doing in the battle of public relations it has around the Islamic world is to present itself as an ally of the Zionist entity against Iran. That would be the gift for which Tehran is waiting, so it would be good for our Saudi colleagues to stop shooting themselves in their collective foot — and ours — as we have more than enough concerns to worry about.

If we put this aside, what could Israel possibly do in Yemen or Syria to support Saudi Arabia? Will it stand with the Salafist Islamic groups which make up the opposition in Syria, while it knows that they are a close copy of its enemy in the occupied Palestinian territories, Hamas? Would Israel provide them with anti-aircraft weapons, for example? Would Israel be allowed to provide more than what Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar give?

The same thing applies in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is leading the coalition against the Houthis and it does not need any more help. It could end the battle on the military level if it weren’t for some complex political calculations and concerns for the lives of Yemeni civilians. Saudi is still working with the international community to find a peaceful solution, but it is capable of ending the fighting on its own if the latest effort by US Secretary of State John Kerry, set out during his recent visit to Jeddah, fails; either way, there is no need for Israel.

There is, though, intelligence sharing, and this is something that the Israelis enjoy. However, it is not possible for Israel to possess intelligence information about Yemen about which Saudi Arabia does not already know and which is worth paying the high price of normalisation for. The same goes for Syria where the Saudis, Turkey and Qatar have huge intelligence sources. Even if there was important intelligence to be had, there is an international circle for gathering such information involving the US and European countries; Saudi Arabia and its allies are part of this circle.

What’s left is the imaginary Israeli influence from which the kingdom can benefit to support its causes, according to advocates of normalisation, but it is an imaginary and exaggerated influence. I’m joined in this view by Daniel Levy, the Director of Middle East Project, a research body that is concerned with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “There is a strong feeling, not only among Arabs, but you can even find it in China, that Israel has a strong influence in the circles of decision-making capitals such as Washington and London,” says Levy. “This is an exaggeration, and it is not wise to count on it on anything other than direct Israeli interests.” Israel only defends its own interests and if we agree with it on an issue, it is usually accidental rather than planned. When Israel mobilised politicians of the world to lay siege to the Iranian nuclear project, it was concerned about its own strategic security and not that of the region. Iran’s borders are close to Israel, but this does not concern the latter unless Iran (and Hezbollah) cross the red lines of Israeli security, such as transporting certain weapons to Lebanon. Then, and only then, will Israeli jets race to destroy the weapons and those carrying them; using these weapons against Syrians, though, does not concern the Israelis at all.

Of course, Riyadh does not need Israeli influence to promote the kingdom’s interests in Washington or European capitals. Experience has shown since the AWACS deal in the eighties that it has sufficient weight to solve its own problems, including disrupted arms deals or the need for a vote in the UN Security Council.

However, to keep pace with the voices calling for normalisation, let’s suppose that Israel can serve the goals of the Saudis in Syria, for example, and that it would mobilise its powerful lobbies in Washington or Moscow to convince US President Barack Obama to intervene to protect the Syrian people, and convince his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to withdraw as a mercy for the people. Even if they could do all of that, do the Israelis have the same political objectives as those of the kingdom? Does Israel care about the exit of Bashar Al-Assad and his regime, with whom it has coexisted for half a century, and does it want to see Assad being replaced by an elected Syrian government that is dominated by Islamists and people who are unlikely to tolerate relations with the occupier and would pressure the government in every free election? Of course not, and anyone who reads material published by Israeli research centres or listens to Israeli politicians’ slips of the tongue, can tell that Israeli concerns are actually focused on a situation whereby Syria would be without Bashar Al-Assad.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.