This article was originally published by World Affairs on 20 January 2017.
During the early years of the Obama administration, conventional wisdom in Washington held that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict trumped everything else in the Middle East, that no problem could be resolved until that one was out of the way. “Without doubt,” former president Jimmy Carter said, “the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem.” The reason, said his former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, now a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, is because, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most combustible and galvanizing issue in the Arab world”.
Similar views were expressed across the political spectrum, from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Defense Secretary Chuck Hegel and General David Petraeus.
“If we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian process,” Obama said in 2008, then that will make it easier for Arab states and the Gulf states to support us when it comes to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan. It will also weaken Iran, which has been using Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to stir up mischief in the region. If we’ve gotten an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, maybe at the same time peeling Syria out of the Iranian orbit, that makes it easier to isolate Iran so that they have a tougher time developing a nuclear weapon.
This has long been a dubious theory and events in the meantime have proven it. The main drivers of chaos in the Middle East are conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims, between Arabs and Persians, and between secularists and Islamists. This has been true for decades, but with civil war in Syria, the rise of The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), anarchy in Libya, a region-wide proxy war in Yemen, and an Iran unshackled by sanctions, it is obvious now even to casual observers. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has been reduced almost to an asterisk.
The effect of all this is something no one would have predicted a couple of decades ago and only the most astute predicted even a couple of years ago—the Sunni Arab world, unofficially led by Saudi Arabia, is quietly forging a de facto alliance with Israel against Iran.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel have always been terrible, but they have been improving over time at a glacial speed.
When Israel declared independence from Britain in 1948, no Arab state recognized the Jewish state’s right to exist. After losing several pointless wars against Israel, Egypt signed a peace treaty based on the Camp David Accords in 1979. Jordan followed in 1994, but the rest of the Arab world, with the partial exception of Morocco, remained rejectionist.
The Saudis scoffed at the Camp David Accords, but a quarter-century later in 2002 they floated a peace initiative of their own, which was later ratified by an Arab League meeting in Beirut, Lebanon. Fifty-seven Muslim states—including all Arab states—would exchange “full diplomatic and normal relations” with Israel for a “comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians”.
In 2007, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni openly praised it and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the initiative must be taken seriously. “On the surface,” wrote Gilad Sharon, son of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, “the proposal looked appealing with its provision that the Arab states welcome peace with Israel—something they had been unwilling to do since the state’s inception. But the details made the offer unacceptable”.
The Israelis have never said yes. They cannot, really, because the plan requires them to accept millions of hostile descendents of Palestinian refugees. Israel has no room for these people. If it managed to find room somehow, Arabs would outnumber Jews in what is now the world’s only Jewish state.
In all likelihood, the Saudis and the Arab League never took the proposal seriously. They knew perfectly well that Israel could never swallow that poison pill. Fourteen years later, though, the Saudis have softened their position considerably. Their peace initiative is no longer a take-it-or-leave-it deal, but rather the opening bid in a regional negotiation.
Ever so slowly, the Saudis have been warming up to the Israelis one decade and step at a time. Their relations with Iran have been moving in the opposite direction.
The two countries have never gotten along well. Saudi Arabia was established in 1927 as the Kingdom of Nejd and Hejaz, and a Saudi-Iranian Friendship Treaty was signed in 1929, but the Saudis kept things frosty. First, Iran is mostly Shia, and the ultraconservative Wahhabi sect that dominates Saudi politics detests Shia Muslims as much as or more than it detests anyone else. Second, Iran under the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled from 1941 to 1979, had excellent relations with Israel.
When Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as the strong horse in the struggle for power after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, he abrogated Iran’s friendship with Israel, declared war on the Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime in Baghdad, and branded the Saudi monarchy illegitimate. The “vile and ungodly Wahhabis” in Saudi Arabia, he said, “are like daggers which have always pierced the heart of the Muslims from the back.” Mecca, he added, was controlled by “a band of heretics”.
Things came to a head in 1987 when a large group of Iranian Shia Muslims staged a protest in Mecca against Israel and the United States. When Saudi authorities attempted to move the demonstrators off to the side and out of the way, a riot erupted. It is hard to say for sure who was more at fault. Each side of course blames the other. Eyewitness accounts are hopelessly biased. Around 400 people were killed, including dozens of police officers. The next day, Iranian mobs attacked the Saudi and Kuwait Embassies in Tehran.
The Saudis responded by severing all diplomatic relations. As far as they were concerned, the Iranians were as wicked as the Israelis.
The tipping point came in 2006 when Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and kicked off the most destructive conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean since the Lebanese civil war.
The Egyptian and Saudi governments implicitly sided with Israel, not because they liked the Israelis but because they rightly saw Hezbollah—the most powerful and dangerous foreign terrorist army the Iranian government had ever created—as a menace threatening Lebanon’s democratically elected government and the moderate Sunni prime minister Fouad Seniora.
Taking Israel’s side against any Arab fighting force was a drastic step, even if that Arab fighting force was Shia and backed by Iran. Close observers of the region should not have been surprised, though. The Middle East is a place where what is not said is often as important as what is said. Prior to 2006, governments in six Arab countries—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Tunisia—threatened to pursue nuclear weapons programs of their own to counter Iran’s. None of these Arab countries sought nuclear weapons to balance out Israel’s. They feared and loathed the Shias of Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran much more than they worried about Zionists, regardless of what they said.
Iran has only grown stronger in the meantime. With Saddam Hussein out of the way in Iraq, Baghdad is firmly aligned with Tehran. And now that the United States has lifted most of the sanctions against Iran as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the “nuclear deal,” the ayatollahs have hundreds of millions of fresh dollars to spend on their proxy militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
Ten years after implicitly siding with the Israelis in Lebanon, it is an open secret that the Saudis will allow Israeli fighter jets to fly over their air space if Jerusalem ever decides to take out Iranian nuclear weapons facilities. The Saudis officially deny this, but so many unnamed officials have said it is true that Saudi Arabia’s face-saving denials are not fooling anyone anymore.
The Saudis are just doing what is logical. Israel and the Sunni Arab states have the same enemies—the Iranian regime, Syria’s Assad regime, Hamas, and Hezbollah—and, as the Arabs have said since ancient times, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Israelis and Arabs may never like each other, but they do not have to. Look at the Greeks and the Turks. They have hated each other’s guts for hundreds of years, they ethnically cleansed each other in 1923, and again on the island of Cyprus in the 1970s, but the Soviet Union was a lightning rod during the Cold War, and they set aside their longstanding hostility and agreed to work with each other within the framework of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Israelis and Arabs may never like each other, but they do not have to. Look at the Greeks and the Turks.
During the mid-to-late twentieth century, Israel was similarly a kind of lightning rod in the Middle East that unified the Arabs. Today Iran is the lightning rod. The real threat from Iran is uniting most of the Arab states, and it is triggering a serious rethink about the nonthreat from the Jewish state.
The real threat from Iran is uniting most of the Arab states, and it is triggering a serious rethink about the nonthreat from the Jewish state.
This quiet regional realignment is the Iranian government’s greatest diplomatic and propaganda failure. When the revolutionary regime overthrew the Shah in 1979, Khomeini attempted to rally the Arab world behind him by singling out the so-called Zionist Entity as a threat to all Muslims. He had his work cut out for him. Hatred of Jews was never as strong a force in Persian culture as it historically has been in Arab culture. For Persians, Arabs—not Jews—were and are the ancient implacable foe.
Iran’s new rulers aspired to become the hegemons of the region, but they would never get there unless the region rallied around them. Their best bet, perhaps their only bet, was to unite all Muslims—Sunni, Shia, Arab, and Persian—against the Jews. So Khomeini abandoned Iran’s alliance with Israel and threw its support behind terrorist armies like Hamas and Hezbollah.
In The Persian Night, Iranian journalist Amir Taheri sums up Khomeini’s pitch to the Arabs this way:
Forget that Iran is Shiite, and remember that today it is the only power capable of realizing your most cherished dream, the destruction of Israel. The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood promised you it would throw the Jews into the sea in 1948, but failed. Pan-Arab nationalists, led by Nasser, ushered you into one of your biggest defeats in history, enabling Israel to capture Jerusalem. The Baathists under Saddam Hussein promised to “burn Israel,” but ended up bringing the American infidels to Baghdad. Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian “patriots” promised to crush the Jewish state, but turned into collaborators on its payroll. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda never gave two hoots about Palestine, focusing only on spectacular operations in the West to win publicity for themselves. Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Hamas did all they could to destroy Israel but lacked the power, like flies attacking an elephant. The only force now willing and able to help realize your dream of a burned Israel and drowning the Jews is the Islamic Republic as created by Khomeini.
It was a clever plan. Israel could have been the lighting rod that brought Arabs and Persians, and Sunnis and Shias, together. Instead, the Semitic tribes are slowly inching together.
Last summer, Saudi general Anwar Majed Eshki and Israeli diplomat Dore Gold held a joint public meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. The two men started by shaking hands in front of the cameras, an act that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago. Eshki announced Saudi Arabia’s agenda for the Middle East, which included regime change in Iran, Arab unity, an Arab regional military force, and a free Kurdistan. Saudi Arabia’s number one priority, though, above all others, was peace between Israelis and Arabs.
It is not just the Saudi government that is coming around. Saudi citizens also view the region differently than they used to. A recent poll conducted by the IDC Institute for Policy and Strategy found that only 18 percent of Saudis view Israel as their principal enemy; 22 percent said that distinction belongs to ISIS whereas a whopping 53 percent fingered Iran.
Relations between the two countries crept another inch forward in April this year when Egypt transferred control of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia. These islands have been flashpoints in the Arab–Israeli conflict a number of times, but they probably will not be again.
They have no value in and of themselves—no resources, no people, no nothing—but a glance at a map shows their geopolitical significance. The islands bottleneck the Straits of Tiran between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. Any ships that want to reach Israel or Jordan from the south have to pass through there, and the passage is only a few miles across. A fit person could swim from one side to the other without too much trouble.
In 1950, during the early days of the Arab–Israeli conflict, the Saudis asked the more powerful Egyptians to take control of the islands because they feared the Israelis might seize them. Just as the Saudis feared, six years later the Israelis took Tiran Island during the Suez Crisis in 1956, and again in 1967 when Egyptian ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser blockaded the straits and precipitated the Six Day War. The Saudis would not have been able to hold the Israelis back, but as it turned out, neither could the Egyptians.
Things have settled down in the meantime. Both the Egyptians and the Saudis understand perfectly well that any military threat to their governments comes from the Iranians and not the Israelis right now, so Egypt returned control of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia.
Egypt’s dictator, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has turned out to be a staunch champion of the Egyptian–Israeli peace treaty, not because he loves the Israelis—surely he does not—but because, like all Egyptian Army officers, he is painfully aware that another war with Israel would be as destructive as all the previous wars. And he is realistic enough to know that the Israelis will not wake up some random morning and decide to bomb Cairo just for the hell of it.
The transfer of the islands back to the Saudis “relates to us and it does not bother us,” Israeli Knesset member Tzachi Hanegb said. “The Saudis, who are committed to freedom of shipping under international law, will not harm the essence of the agreement between Egypt and us in this regard, and freedom of shipping in Aqaba and Eilat will remain as is”.
“There is an agreement and commitments that Egypt accepted related to these islands, and the kingdom is committed to these,” said Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir, referring to the Egyptian–Israeli peace treaty that guarantees passage of Israeli ships through the Straits of Tiran.
By publicly agreeing to respect Israel’s right to this particular international waterway, the Saudis are implicitly agreeing to at least part of the Egyptian–Israeli peace treaty despite the fact that no formal peace treaty exists yet between Jerusalem and Riyadh.
How far those two little islands have come. They started out as pieces on the board in the region-wide Arab–Israeli conflict, and now they symbolize the long overdue thaw.
Just one month later, in May of this year, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal met with retired Israeli Major General Yaakov Amidror at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. After the two men shook hands, director Robert Satloff mediated a remarkably fresh dialogue between them.
Faisal stunned the audience. “With cooperation between Arab countries and Israel,” he said, in meeting the threats, wherever they come from—whether it is Iran or any other source—we will be much better fortified in a situation where there is peace between the Arab countries and Israel. And I don’t see any particular difficulty in undertaking that.
The Israeli–Palestinian conflict is the only remaining stumbling block. “There is no requirement,” Faisal said,
either for divine revelation or Einsteinian genius, to know what the peace is. It’s two states, mutual swaps of territory, and a declaration of peace on both sides that will bring the Arab countries to recognize Israel and establish normal relations, in return for Israel’s acceptance of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza . . . If we can get that situation, think of what we can do on science, on technology, on humanitarian affairs, on all the things that need to be looked at.
The Israeli–Palestinian conflict is still a formidable problem, but it is clearly no longer the bottleneck that it used to be.
The Saudis are not the only ones whose views are evolving. Israeli attitudes are shifting as well. “What we think here in Israel about the Saudis is not exactly what they are,” said the IDC’s Alex Mintz. The same goes double for the Saudi view of Israelis, but as retired Israeli general Shimon Shapira told journalist, “we discovered we have the same problems and same challenges and some of the same answers.”
Much of the Middle East seems stubbornly resistant to change, but history is a river, not a statue, and all things eventually pass.
About the Author
Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor for World Affairs who has reported from the Middle East, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. He is the author of The Road to Fatima Gate, which won the Washington Institute Silver Book Prize in 2011, In the Wake of the Surge, Where The West Ends, and Taken, a novel.
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