President Donald Trump shakes hands with then Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman during a bilateral meeting on May 20, 2017 in Riyadh [AP/Evan Vucci]
Israel and Saudi Arabia have been the hot subject of speculation and gossip in recent weeks. Not a day goes by without us hearing about their latest rendezvous, their winks and whims, their flirtations and fantasies.
I’m not sure Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did indeed make a secret trip to Tel Aviv, but I did see former Saudi and Israeli intelligence chiefs share a stage at a New York synagogue last month.
The hilarity – or rather, the calamity – of the scene transcended the attempt at normality from former head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki Al Faisal, with his English gentleman’s red socks, as he disagreed on stage with former Mossad director Efraim Halevy, as the latter argued in favour of maintaining the Iran nuclear deal. When an Israeli spymaster sounds like a moderate in comparison to his Saudi counterpart regarding a “fellow Muslim nation”, it’s time to be alarmed.
At any rate, since Prince Turki’s “flirtation” with another former Israeli spy and ex-foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, in Davos in January, informal meetings and overtures between the Israelis and the Saudis seem to have multiplied. Bahrain and the UAE have also joined in. Their objective is to prepare the public for the shock of normalisation, to normalise the idea of future normalisation with Israel.
|Prince Turki Al Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief, with Efraim Halevy, a former Israeli Mossad director with others at the Temple Emanu-El Strieicker Center in New York City on October 22, 2017 [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]
Love and hate
The attraction between the Wahabi and Zionist leaders may be neither halal nor kosher, but it’s nonetheless strong and getting stronger. And it’s nothing new.
Their rapprochement is born out of necessity and driven, primarily, by mutual aversion rather than mutual attraction: aversion to the Iranian regime and fear of its expanding influence in the region. As those feelings grow, so does their relationship, in accordance with the realist proverb: my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
Indeed, US President Donald Trump noticed with great satisfaction the “really good feeling towards Israel” in Saudi Arabia after his May visit to both countries. Since then he’s been godfathering a trilateral arrangement with Israel and Saudi Arabia to confront Iran’s “fanatical regime“and its regional aggression.
In an interview with the Saudi publication Elaph earlier this month – yet another sign of normalisation – Israel’s military chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, explained how Iran threatens both Saudi Arabia and Israel through not one but two parallel (Shia) crescents of influence that cross the region. To the north, one goes through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and to the Mediterranean Sea; and to the south, a second goes through the Gulf region, Yemen and to the banks of the Red Sea.
Marriages of convenience have been built on much less.
Gains and losses
Judging from their public declarations, Israelis are terribly impatient. They want to take the Saudi relationship to a whole new level; they want to “go steady” and they want to come out. And they want it yesterday. Their generation-old (wet) dream of public strategic engagement with moderate Sunni Arab regimes is finally coming true.
Israel has everything to gain and, if it can help it, nothing to lose, from the normalisation of relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. It could see its relations improve dramatically with many of the other 55 Muslim-majority countries, just as it saw a huge spike in its diplomatic and economic relations around the world after the 1993 Oslo Accords, including with the likes of Jordan and Qatar. Doha shut down Israel’s trade office in the Gulf country in 2009 after the Israeli offensive on Gaza.
For Israel, shared strategic interests and shared goals with Saudi Arabia should suffice to normalise their relations and strengthen their union. But as Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz’s latest revelations about Israel’s long “sharing of intelligence” have shown, it’s Riyadh, not Tel Aviv, that insists on secrecy out of a sense of shame.
When Saudi Arabia committed to a peace initiative that became an Arab League initiative in 2002, it expressed willingness to normalise relations with Israel but only after Israel’s withdrawal from Palestinian and Arab territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
For Riyadh, quick and unconditional normalisation with its historical nemesis has long been a risky proposition for the kingdom and its regional standing. Even its more enthusiastic neighbour, the United Arab Emirates, has been, in the words of one Israeli expert, a silent partner.
Not any more.
New leadership, new policy
It was quite shocking to see the above-mentioned Saudi interview with Israeli chief of staff totally and utterly ignore the Palestinian issue. That’s clearly no mistake or lapse of journalistic judgment – it’s intentional. And it’s politically motivated.
Has the Saudi (and UAE) leadership accepted Israel’s generous offer on Iran in return for ignoring the plight of Palestine? Or does Riyadh still insist on Israel accepting the Arab initiative before formal normalisation begins?
It seems the Saudis and Israelis are waiting for clarifications and answers from President Trump’s proposal – what he promises will be the “ultimate deal” to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For example, will the US ask Israel to withdraw from East Jerusalem or will it pressure the Saudis to pressure the Palestinians to give up their right to a state and a capital? Or, perhaps, leave it in limbo?
Spare yourselves the suspense. The “ultimate deal” is the ultimate BS.
Why? Well, because the boy-wonder that Trump appointed as the best man for the job of resolving the century-old conflict is none other than his son-in-law, Jared Kushner – a lousy businessman and a religious Zionist, whose claim to fame is marrying the right girl at the right time. It’s not even clear whether Kushner’s White House career will survive the Russia investigation, since Special Counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly after him for his role in the dismissal of FBI chief James Comey. Mueller is also looking into Kushner’s secret policy coordination with Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu to undermine the Obama administration during a UN vote on Israeli illegal settlements in Palestine.
In my estimation, the Trump administration will fail to produce a credible and comprehensive peace strategy, and, like its predecessors, it will fail to resolve the “Israel problem” or stop the colonisation of Palestine. Likewise, the administration has no real actionable Iran strategy, and lacks the will and the intention to confront Iran in various hotspots of the greater Middle East.
Tweeting Iran into submission doesn’t require Israeli or Saudi participation. Trump is more than capable.
Consequently, if the Saudi royals normalise with the “Zionist usurpers” of Jerusalem, they’ll find out that they’ve been exposed on all fronts. They’ll learn that Israel won’t fight their battles for them. And they will also discover, rather late, that instead of putting Iran in a corner, normalisation with Israel in the absence of peace will empower and propagate Iran’s role in the region.
And there’s more.
Before the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques surrenders al-Aqsa to the “Zionists” or before the Salmans raise Israeli flags in Riyadh, it’s worthwhile to consider the consequences of the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s normalisation with Israel. Bear in mind that Saudi Arabia, unlike Egypt, does not seek to liberate territories from Israeli occupation and desires no aid from the United States.
Four decades later…
Forty years ago this week, then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made a diplomatic splash when he visited Israel and spoke to the Knesset. It broke a psychological barrier in the Arab world, marked a turning point in the conflict with Israel, and saw the beginning of Egypt’s official normalisation of relations with Israel.
Sadat cemented that process into a cold peace the following year, signing the Camp David accords, which guaranteed the return of occupied Sinai and billions of dollars in aid from the US, but neglected the occupied territories of the rest of the Arabs, including the Palestinians.
A militant Egyptian group assassinated Sadat during a military parade three years later, but his successor Hosni Mubarak continued to honour the agreement. Sinai was returned and the aid came through, but the bigger promise of modernisation, openness and peace dividend never really materialised, certainly not for ordinary Egyptians.
For the people of Egypt, normalisation with Israel never became normal. The Egyptian people remained mostly hostile or indifferent towards their neighbour to the north. And Palestine continued to be a rallying cause for Egyptian civil society, in their pursuit of justice and freedom from repression.
But for Israel, normalisation was a bounty. With its southern flanks secured, it began a large campaign of repression against Palestinians and escalation of its illegal settlement activities in occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories. Israel annexed the occupied Syrian Golan Heights in 1981. And in 1982, it invaded Lebanon to crush the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Lebanese National Movement, which led to tens of thousands of casualties. It maintained its occupation of southern Lebanon for the next 18 years. Israel’s status was elevated soon after from US regional ally to global “strategic asset”.
Forty years ago, there was no Palestinian Hamas and no Lebanese Hezbollah, no al-Qaeda and ISIL, and no Islamic Republic of Iran. But soon after the Camp David accords, Israeli aggression paved the way for the rise of Hamas and Hezbollah, just as Soviet and US aggression – coupled with Arab discord – plunged the region into chaos and paved the way for the rise of militant Islamists.
The lessons couldn’t be clearer. Arab autocrats, who fail in governance and in war, also fail in peace and normalisation.
Normalisation through weakness is the exact opposite of peace through strength, and therefore, is destined to fail. It is an idea that is tinged with betrayal: betrayal of common Arab interests, as well as the betrayal of Palestine.
For the people of the Arab world, Palestine has long been a rallying cause because it’s about more than geography or a homeland for the Palestinian people. Palestine is the test of Arab conscience, the symbol of the struggle for freedom, not only from military occupation, but also from political repression at home.
Those who shed tears over Arab unity and national security in Cairo this week are the very regimes cooperating with Israel in secret. Their incompetence has paved the way for Israel, Iran and the US to run amok in the region.
When the regional hysteria finally ceases, when the hallucination subsides, history will cast a harsh judgment on the cynics who normalise with Israel at the expense of Palestine.