Israel and Saudi Arabia prepare to face a shared enemy.
By: Dan Yonker
As Israel seems to be running out of patience with the United States over the threat of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pressured the United States to establish a “red line” Iran cannot cross without military consequences. The United States has refused to issue any such ultimatum, and with a presidential election just months away, looks increasingly less certain to do so. These events have forced Israel to look for strategic partners in the most unlikely of places: its own backyard.
Saudi Arabia is no stranger to Iranian belligerence. Tehran has been suspected in terrorist attacks on Saudi oilfields, of bullying Saudi presence abroad, and has been linked to the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers. In their darkest fears, some Kingdom officials hint at the possibility of Iran using Saudi Shiites as a fifth column to overthrow the Sunni monarchy. If the old rule of an enemy of an enemy is a friend, then a source of common ground has been created between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
These developments are leading to a shift in the strategic balance of the Middle East, one that facilitates cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. As counter-intuitive as it may be to observers of the region, Israel’s military capabilities give it the potential to be the Saudis’ strongest regional ally. In theory, the two countries share enough commonalities regarding Iran to allow them to look past historic confrontations towards a shared enemy.
However shocking this development may seem, history would argue that this partnership is a rational step. Rhetoric aside, both Saudi and Israeli leaders have shown a willingness to act pragmatically in strategic decision making. Israelis have not allowed ideology to get in the way of improving security, oftentimes overcoming ideology in shoring up regional alliances with countries such as Jordan and Egypt. One could explain this as the Periphery Doctrine applied to the 21st Century, a logical and pragmatic next step in Ben Gurion’s infamous foreign policy strategy. Tel Aviv has exchanged the non-Arab Muslim connections of the 1960s for the courting of Sunni Arabs. For as counter-intuitive as this may seem, this is no dramatic departure from past policies; it is actually the continuation of historic strategies.
Saudi Arabia and its leaders also have a track record of political practicality when dealing with Israel. This history of moderation has shown the understanding that a nuclear-armed Iran disrupts the relative stability of the status quo. Saudi Arabia proposed an Arab-Israeli peace plan in 2002 and attended the 2007 Annapolis Conference with Israel. While the conference did not achieve peace, many analysts have viewed it as the first of the positive overtures between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
One of the most groundbreaking examples of this growing cooperation was the massive U.S.-Saudi arms deal that took place in 2010. The $60 billion agreement provided fighter aircraft, helicopters, and improved missile capabilities for Riyadh. What makes this remarkable is not the size or cost — the largest U.S. arms deal ever — but the fact that the Israelis allowed it to go through. That is not to say that it did not face criticism or opposition, but in the end the agreement was successfully negotiated. Israel agreed to this sale for two important reasons. One, the Israelis received their own arms deal, which included the more advanced F-35 fighter aircraft, and assurances that the Saudi arsenal would not affect Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in the region. But more importantly, it signaled a shifting of Israeli policies. This bold move illustrated the fact that Israel was more comfortable with a better-equipped and stronger Saudi Arabia.
Equipping a country is one thing, but actual military support during open hostilities is quite another. There is no debate that cooperation with the Saudis would give the Israelis a large tactical advantage in the event of a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Use of Saudi airspace would open clear bombing routes for the Israeli Air Force and enable refueling operations during the strike. However, the Saudis have publicly denied Israel use of their airspace, warning that they would intercept and destroy any Israeli jets.
Certainly this sounds like a severe blow to any perceived cooperation, but Saudi Arabia and Israel have no interest in being perceived as cooperating. Israeli leaders and their Arab counterparts are unlikely to agree to an official military alliance and diplomatic recognition until a comprehensive peace can be reached with the Palestinians. Such strategic cooperation would be extremely beneficial for the region, but at the current point in time, it can only be secret and limited to strategic ends. Pragmatists on both sides see the benefit of working together against Iran. But the civilian populations of both cannot. They are not ready at this stage to handle the prospect that their governments could work together. This is an issue that must be dealt within the military and intelligence realms. But a growing web of security relationships between Israel and Saudi Arabia is logical in the progression of balancing Iran. Both governments can agree that an unchecked Iran is not in their best interests.
Dan Yonker is a 2011 graduate of Michigan State University and is currently a Research Assistant for the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University. His views are his own and do not reflect those of his employers.
Photo credit: The Telegraph