“The changes that the Middle East has experienced in recent years have created a set of joint interests between the two countries,”
The tacit security and intelligence cooperation that has come to characterize Israel’s clandestine relationship with Saudi Arabia is likely to remain intact even as the House of Saud undergoes a transition of power following Thursday’s passing of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud.
“The changes that the Middle East has experienced in recent years have created a set of joint interests between the two countries,” said Dr. Michal Yaari, an expert on Saudi foreign policy and a lecturer at the Open University.
Like Israel, the Saudis are loathe to accept the radical winds of change that have swept the region, particularly the tumult that has been encouraged by Iran, the House of Saud’s chief Shi’ite rival.
“The biggest enemy for both countries is Iran, and there are also the radical terror groups like ISIS that threaten the regional order in the Middle East,” Yaari said. “It is this overall framework that has created the conditions for cooperation between Jerusalem and Riyadh.”
Despite this convergence of interests, Israeli-Saudi cooperation will likely remain hush-hush as long as the Zionist-Arab conflict remains unresolved , Yaari said.
“We need to remember that even if there are ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, it’s only behind the scenes, behind closed doors since Saudi Arabia can never launch a bilateral peace process with Israel,” she said.
“Both countries have an interest to keep the relationship far from the public eye,” Yaari said. A scenario by which Israel and the Saudis engage each other out in the open would be possible “only if Israel signs a comprehensive peace agreement with the entire Arab world.”
The Saudis dipped their toes into the peacemaking waters over a decade ago when the now-deceased Abdullah revealed a diplomatic initiative which offers Israel full diplomatic relations with the Arab-Muslim world in exchange for a full withdrawal from territories captured during the 1967 Six-Day War and “a just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee question.
Since that time, the Arab League has ratified the proposal annually, while Israel has largely refrained from responding. According to Yaari, Abdullah’s death will have no impact on the status of the Saudi initiative.
“The Arab peace initiative is a basic idea that proposes a regional solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict,” she said. “Saudi Arabia wants to prevent a situation whereby an Arab government independently negotiates with Israel.”
“Abdullah’s death won’t affect such a key issue in Riyadh’s foreign policy,” she said. “The only change [under the incoming monarch, Salman] will be cosmetic and not fundamental. Even if the Arab peace initiative isn’t on the agenda, its importance remains.”
Would the Saudis ever formalize relations with Israel – based on the two governments’ mutual antagonism toward Tehran – without a solution to the Palestinian matter? Yaari says that is not going to happen.
“Riyadh will never sign a peace deal with Israel as long as the Israeli-Arab conflict remains unresolved and as long as Israel holds on to the occupied territories and the Temple Mount,” she said.
Yaari said that the expressions of condolence expressed by President Reuven Rivlin and his predecessor, Shimon Peres, are indicative of “a greater Israeli understanding of Saudi Arabia’s importance to Middle East stability.”
Geopolitical cooperation notwithstanding, observers should lower expectations that the new monarch in Riyadh will usher in a dramatic change in Saudi attitudes toward Israel.
“Israel would be wise to act with caution and understanding of the limitations of Saudi foreign policy,” Yaari said. “Relations need to remain far from the public eye, and even if there are contacts, they can’t be made public in Israeli or Saudi Arabia.”
“Israel also needs to recognize the extraordinary importance of Saudi Arabia as a leader of the Arab-Muslim world, a bridgehead that connects the Arab world to the West, and a remarkably important factor in stabilizing the region and maintaining quiet.”