MIDDLE EASTOPINIONPOLITICS

Israel and Saudi Arabia: allies, adversaries or something else?

By Nagapushpa Devendra

For all intentions and purposes, the coming together of Israel and Saudi Arabia in the changing regional dynamics of West Asia raise many questions.  The shifting of alliance in the region had started under Obama regime and the recent development in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon has further pushed these countries to work together against Iran’s increasing influence. In addition, the U.S decision to play cautious in the regional conflicts, particularly the reluctance to use force against Iran has given leverage for Israel-Saudi alliance. Their alliance was further strengthened by theUS president’s senior advisor and Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner, who share similarzeal to isolate Iran from the regional dynamics as Saudi.

Genesis of Israel-Saudi alliance

The basic understanding of international relations is that two opposing parties can or should work together against a common enemy. The origin of this pragmatism is conceded to Kautilya Arthashastra [1], but most world leaders have invoked it at least once in their life time to justify their strategies and actions in international relations. For example: In World War II, U.S President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill recognized the need to align with the Soviet Union under the leadership of Joseph Stalin against the threat of Adolf Hitler. The simple logic and advantage of this strategy is to fight a common enemy or a ‘greater evil’, which increases the probability of victory.[2] Under this pretext, given Saudi Arabia’s understanding that Iran becoming a threat to its regional hegemony and challenging it in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, its willingness to forgo generations of refusing to recognize Israel and turn into major allies is inevitable.

In contemporary politics thus, both Saudi Arabia and Israel share common enemy in the region: Iran. On one hand, growing Iran-Hezbollah dominance in Iraq and Syria is gradually becoming a matter of security concern for Israelis. In Syrian war, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has already declared “victory”, and stated that what remained was “scattered battles.”[3] Iran is also gaining its roots in Iraq by supporting the Shia militias and the ruling Dawa Party. Iran is also providing logistic support to the newly formed group named, “Golan Liberation Unit” who had vowed to liberate the Golan Heights from Israeli troops under any circumstances. Moreover, Israelis believe that the emergence of Iran as a nuclear state would bring their world to the threshold of abyss. Charles Ellis Schumer, the senior United States senator said that, “one nuclear weapon, hurled from Iran to Israel, could end the Jewish state and could kill almost as many Jews as did Hitler.”[4] They fear that Iran’s nuclear competence will also significantly embolden its proxies in Syria, Palestine and Lebanon posing imminent threat to Israel’s security predicament.

As a result, Israel decided to counter Iranian threat by forming ananti-Iran “coalition” with the Arab Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia. The kingdom, too, has been trying cautiously building closer ties with Tel Aviv, as its rivalry with Iran has become one of the persistent feature of West Asia’s geopolitical issues including, interpretation of Islam, oil political, and the aspiration to dominate the Islamic world since 1979 Iranian revolution. The tug-of-war between both the countries intensified during post Saddam Hussein era in an attempt to consolidate power in Iraq. Since then both the countries have been drawn along contemporary power-politics in regional paradigm. So far, they have also hosted opposing factions in Lebanon and Iraq. At present, they are confronting through proxy war in Syria and Yemen where Iran seems to be gaining as it is able to consolidate and fill the power vacuums created by the crises in these countries. Iran has also attempting to tighten its grip in Bahrain, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

In sharing a common enemy, Saudi Arabia and Israel became strategically aligned, and to some extent, the ideological and social barriers were papered over at least for time being. Two factors have pushed Israel and Saudi close to each other. One, the gradual shift of the US under President Trump from the issues of West Asia. Some analysts have argued that Saudi Arabia and Israel share disappointment with US. They see the diminishing role of the US as paving way for Russia-Iran dominance in the region. Second key element is the Iranian nuclear deal, also known as JCPOA.[5] Israel and Saudi Arabia agree and have enunciated at various regional and international forums that Iran should never be allowed to become a nuclear power. Both the countries have persistently asked President Trump to scrap the nuclear deal, if the conditions for Iran could not be toughened. However, the growing uncertainty about the facets of the international bargain that would curb Iranian nuclear project is making Israel and Saudi Arabia nervous. As a matter of fact, Saudi Arabia which is a signatory to the Non-proliferation treaty, now threatens to acquire nuclear weapons with covert support of Israel.

Although the Israelis will significantly benefit from finding allies across the Arab world who share similar common interest in standing up against Iran and its proxies in the region, they have different approach and tactics. In order to substantiate their differing approach, lets us have a look at the recent Lebanese political unrest orchestrated and bolstered by Israel-Saudi coalition.

Lebanese political quagmire – A primer of Israel-Saudi alliance

In early November 2017, Saudi Arabia had orchestrated Hariri’s resignation. It had many objectives. Firstly, Prince Salman was signaling the Lebanese as well as regional political elite that they will put their political and financial support from the kingdom in jeopardy if they continue to provide political cover and international legitimacy to the Hezbollah.[6] Secondly, Saudi Arabia wanted to curb Hezbollah, Iran’s key strategist which has established its stronghold in the region. In today’s time, Hezbollah has the power to block the Lebanese cabinet’s political decision. Its militia is larger, stronger and partakes the potential to intimidate, infiltrate and dominate Lebanese army. Geographically, Hezbollah has also succeeded in partnering with Syria, Iraq and Yemen by providing them a wide range of resource support.[7] Thirdly, the Saudi Crown Prince has been desperately trying to brand the Iranian outpost as an international terror outfit in the region in order to bring more sanctions on Iran and Hezbollah. As Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, says “the removal of Hariri is a trap for Hezbollah, daring it to fully reveal its power and dominance in Lebanon and take compete responsibility for the Lebanese state which from Saudi perspective, in effectively controls anyways. The next step would be for Hezbollah and Lebanon itself to suffer the consequences of being completely identified with what is widely considered to be an international terrorist organization”.[8] Lastly, Saudi Arabia intended to provide a context for Israelis to invade Lebanon by disrupting its vulnerable political structure in which Hezbollah and Sunni parties have ruled together in an uneasy alliance for decades.

While no one was sure about the Israel’s response to the Saudi Arabia’s strategy in Lebanon, the declassified documents revealed Israel urging its ambassadors to support Saudi’s effort to expel Iran backed Hezbollah from the Lebanese government and politics.[9] Following which the Israel’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying that “the resignation of Al-Hariri and his comments on the reasons that led him to resign illustrate once again the destructive nature of Iran and Hezbollah and the danger they pose to the stability of Lebanon and the countries of the region”.[10] Many other Israeli officials have also called international community to take action against Iranian aggression on various regional and international platforms.

However, Saudi Arabia wanted Israelis to flex its military muscles in Lebanon apart from its rhetoric exigency. In fact, Saudi had also mobilized F-15 fighter jet fleet to launch a military operation against the Iranian-backed terrorist militia of Hezbollah in Lebanon.[11] But before a new regional disorder exacerbates, Saudi Arabia faced resentment like never before from across the globe for meddling in Lebanese internal affairs. This led Israel also to take a step back, despite indicating all signs to invade Lebanon. But it does not explain Israeli official’s decision to go public with their cooperation. It came as a surprise when in a televised speech an Israeli official publicly expressed disenchantment with the Idea of Saudi prince trying to use them as a proxy to fight their battle in a regionalpower struggle. A senior Israeli intelligence official told Al-Monitor that in principle, the Saudis do not take anyone else into consideration. The Crown Prince is trying to lead a progressive and aggressive new policy in which Israel hasno plan to get entangled.

It appears that Israel wanted to hint Saudi Arabia that they do not intend to become proxy players in the regional power struggle. For Israel, antagonizing Iran through Hezbollah means confronting all its proxy forces and its allies like Russia and Turkey in the region. In such case, Israel would need U.S support if their objectives is to succeed. But Trump flip-flop decision-making does not make the US a reliable partner in the region. Although Israel wants torestrain growing Iranian influences, it understands the consequences of waging-all-out war against more advanced adversary or one able to deploy larger forces. In other words, Israel is likely to approach diplomatic path of putting pressure on its allies and international communities to fight Iranian interest in the region.

Implications for West Asia

Most significant feature of Israel-Saudi alliance is that despite having differing tactics and approach, their pact is still alive and intact. Though Israel-Saudi alliance encountered problems in Lebanon, it was resolved by Netanyahu’s diplomatic skills. It seems that an overwhelming external threat often concentrates allied mind is true here. As long as Iranian nuclear deal and his proxies are in the ground, Israel-Saudi alliance is assured, notwithstanding the mutual displays of annoyance. In fact, Lebanese political series was a learning lesson for Israel-Saudi alliance to set policies, recognizing that global communication plays a central role in problem definition and negotiation for solutions.

For example, after Lebanon, Saudi-Israelis eyes are set on Yemen and Syria. But this time Saudi and Israel are coordinating from behind the scene, giving space for global player to fulfill their objectives. In Yemen, Israeli have started raising concerns over Houthi’s threatening international maritime security as the situation near the Bab-al-Mandab is worsening on daily bases.[12] Online media also allegedly reports that Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has issued an order to send warplanes to help Saudi-led coalition in their fight in Yemen.[13] This has stimulated debates on whether the US must provide military aid to Saudi-led coalition in the fight against Houthi’s insurgency in Yemen.

Recently, both Israel and Saudi Arabia reiterated their support to the US led attack against alleged use of chemical weapon by Damascus this month.[14] At present, Britain is moving its submarines, Russia and Syria are re-locating their military base, and Israel-Saudi eyes joining the game.[15] It appears that Israel-Saudi Arabia is gradually expanding their footprint in the region, trying to become a combined driving force against Iran. Israel and Saudis in various occasions have made it clear that their government view countering the threat from Iran as a primary foreign policy goal.[16]

However, growing Israel-Saudi alliance is likely to bring other Arab countries like UAE, Bahrain and Egypt in an anti-Iran crusade which is threatening Iran. Recently, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that Iran would not resume its ties with Saudi Arabia unless Riyadh ended its friendship with Israel. The new realpolitik of the Middle East means that Tehran may face even greater strategic challenges in the future.[17] This will have significant implication for the region, especially Lebanon. After being postponed twice over electoral deadlock, Beirut is hosting is hosting election in May 2018. And it is fair to assume that the Israel-Saudi alliance by now has understood that in today’s scenario, weapons do not win war, strategies do. As a result, they will attempt to influence the Lebanese government as their ultimate errand. However, this time Israel-Saudi proxy role in the Lebanese election will be limited to theoretical approach rather than taking extreme measure. While the Saudi Crown Prince will attempt to financially support Hariri or Sunni candidates running for the Prime Ministerial post, Israel will enrich its crusade to denounce Hezbollah, accusing them of spreading terror.

On the other hand, Iran and Hezbollah are now monitoring Lebanese internal politics rigorously. Hariri’s resignation announcement threatens the fragile act of balancing power in the system, placing the country at the verge of collapse: Iran-Hezbollah is more cautioned now. It is likely that the Hezbollah will equally attempt to influence the election or would nominate a candidate who is pro-Shia [Iran-Hezbollah] in order to sway balance of power in their favor.

Yet, again the chance of instability in Lebanon will further destabilize an already volatile region. The winds of political instability caused by Israel-Saudi alliance will have a serious repercussion in already devastated region. In addition, the outflow of refugees will exert demographic pressures for the neighboring states like Syria, Iraq, Libya and Egypt who are already struggling with major socio-economic and humanitarian crisis. This will not only undermine economic growth that the region is struggling desperately to escape but may also give rise to Islamic extremist groups to new unpredictable level, dashing hopes of many ordinary citizens to live peaceful and prosperous lives in the region.

References

  1. Kautilya Arthashastra is a Sanskrit treatise on Statecraft, the Arthashastra which dates back to 4thcentury BC. The first recorded use of the current English version came in 1884.
  2. “My Enemy’s Enemy Is My Friend – Bashar Al Assad And The West”. 2018. Huffpost UK. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dilly-hussain/the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-_b_5713711.html.
  3. Perry, T. and Golubkova, K. (2017). Hezbollah declares Syria victory, Russia says much of country won back. [online] U.S. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-hezbollah/hezbollah-declares-syria-victory-russia-says-much-of-country-won-back-idUSKCN1BN0YL[Accessed 28 Nov. 2017].
  4. Ibid
  5. Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: the agreement between the P5+1+EU and Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is the culmination of 20 months of “arduous” negotiations.
  6. Shihabi, Ali. 2017. “Saudi Arabia’S New Foreign Policy Doctrine”. Arabia Foundation. http://www.arabiafoundation.org/publications/saudi-arabias-new-foreign-policy-doctrine/.
  7. Knights, Michael, Michael Eisenstadt, and Ahmed Ali. 2011. “Iran’S Influence In Iraq”. Washingtoninstitute.Org. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyFocus111.pdf; Toumi, Habib. 2018. “Hezbollah Involvement In Yemeni War Intensifies”. Gulfnews.https://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/yemen/hezbollah-involvement-in-yemeni-war-intensifies-1.1679516
  8. Jacob, Peter. 2017. “It Looks Like Saudi Arabia Removed Lebanon’s Prime Minister – And It May Be The First Move In Starting A War”. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.in/It-looks-like-Saudi-Arabia-removed-Lebanons-prime-minister-and-it-may-be-the-first-move-in-starting-a-war/articleshow/61601291.cms.
  9. “Leak: Israel Supported Hariri’S Resignation”. 2017. Middle East Monitor. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171108-leak-israel-supported-hariris-resignation/.
  10. Willig, G. (2017). Report: Israel aligns with Saudis against Iran in Lebanon. [online] Israel National News. Available at: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/237730[Accessed 25 Nov. 2017].
  11. “Saudi Arabia ‘Scrambles Fighter Jets’ Amid Fears Of WAR In Middle East”. 2017. Dailystar.Co.Uk. https://www.dailystar.co.uk/news/world-news/659370/Saudi-Arabia-Lebanon-War-Fighter-Jets-F-15-Iran-Hezbollah-Israel-US-Tehran-Missile-King.
  12. “Iranian-Armed Yemen Rebels Now Threaten One Of World’s Busiest Shipping Routes, Israeli Navy Says”. 2018. Haaretz.Com.https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/iranian-armed-rebels-threaten-one-of-world-s-busiest-shipping-route-1.5790427.
  13. “Israeli Fighter Jets Join Saudi Arabia In War On Yemen – Veterans Today | News – Military Foreign Affairs – VA”. 2018. Veterans Today | News – Military Foreign Affairs – VA. https://www.veteranstoday.com/2015/03/27/israeli-fighter-jets-join-saudi-arabia-in-war-on-yemen/.
  14. Syria Denounces The U.S.-Led Attack. 2018. Video. ABC News: You tube.
  15. “Israel, Saudi Arabia Back Recent Attack On Syria”. 2018. Sol International. https://news.sol.org.tr/israel-saudi-arabia-back-recent-attack-syria-174534.
  16. “Commentary: The Unlikely Mideast Alliance That Threatens Iran”. 2018. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-behravesh-iran-commentary/commentary-the-unlikely-mideast-alliance-that-threatens-iran-idUSKBN1FC358.
  17. Commentary: The Unlikely Mideast Alliance That Threatens Iran”. 2018. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-behravesh-iran-commentary/commentary-the-unlikely-mideast-alliance-that-threatens-iran-idUSKBN1FC358

Nagapushpa Devendra is a Researcher at Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, India. Her interests lie in International Law, International Theories, Refugee Crisis, Proxy Wars and Political Co-existence of West Asia with International Communities/Actors. She has a MADLB [Master of Arts in Diplomacy, Law and Business] from the Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, where she focused on religion, peace and conflict in West Asia. Prior to joining IDSA, she worked in International Institutions like Greenpeace and BBC. She has also worked in Kashmir for a year studying the Kashmir Conflict from a humanitarian perspective. She was also associated with regional institutions like StudioAdda and India Writes. 

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