American droopiness thrusts Saudi Arabia towards Israel

When Israel Defense Forces Chief Gadi Eisenkot gave an interview to the Saudi media, he disclosed that Israel was ready to share sensitive intelligence with moderate Arab countries for the purpose of countering Iran. Perhaps he was disclosing what has been already happening since at least American President Obama.

Understanding what prompted Eisenkot may be “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Saudi Arabia is a not natural friend of Israel tending to historically support wars against Israel and favoring Palestinian aggression and demands. However Shiite Iran is at odds with Sunni Saudi Arabia and Israel is at odds with Shiite Iran and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia is also engaged against anti-Iranian Shiite proxies in Syria and elsewhere. So it would be an understatement to say that the world’s worst-kept secret is that Israel and Saudi Arabia are almost perfectly aligned in their opposition to Iran.

The direct sharing of sensitive intelligence would not be a foregone conclusion from this. It would be easier to contemplate sharing via a common ally such as the United States of America. However the dubious quality of American leadership in the Middle East by both Presidents Obama and Trump means that Saudi Arabia may have stopped expecting the American cavalry to ride in and save the day.

Both American presidents have inadvertently created the opportunity for direct Israel-Saudi intelligence sharing and even opened the possibility of new alliances in the Middle East. It was the Obama administration’s support of the Iranian nuclear deal 2015, which both Israel and Saudi Arabia countries opposed, that can be identified as the start of a closer Israel-Saudi partnership to block an ascendant Shia Islam. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia lobbied Washington against the deal. Now after a year in office in late 2017 Trump has yet to address their concerns about Iranian misconduct with much more than menacing rhetoric.

It is not just the lack of any substantial Trump action against the Iranian nuclear deal that has led to the blossoming of Israel Saudi relations. It is also American apathy in Syria.

Obama decided against a military response to the Assad regime even when it used chemical weapons in 2013. The Trump administration is similarly stymied by Russian diplomacy as the Syrian civil war rages on. Not heading the sentiments American inaction has not only rehabilitated Russia as a destructive regional power but has also emboldened its Iranian confederates where Saudi Arabia has stopped expecting the American cavalry to ride in and save the day. Saudi Arabia believes there is no future for Assad and even offered to send in ground forces possibility in coordination with Turkey.

Israel has also been doing its part to confront the Shia axis between Iran and Syria and it has no intention of stopping, especially since its petition to establish a sizable buffer zone to keep Iranian troops and proxy forces away from its border in the Golan Heights.

So both Israel and Saudi Arabia appear to agree that Russian cover of Assad is with the acquiescence of and by American apathy leading to the “legitimate” presence of Iranian military advisers in Syria.

With the absence of American superpower involvement and left to their own devices, regional powers and even smaller states are liable to advance solutions tailored to their needs.  Born of the lack of active, proactive and substantial American engagement in Syria, and against Iran and its proxies it is not surprising that Eisenkot’s interview shows Israel’s view of the potential of a cooperative spirit of Israel Saudi relations. However what of the Saudi response?

A young generation of Saudi royals stepping up to the Crown include Prince Mohammed bin Salman who is leading the charge on Iran, pushing back against its influence in Yemen and Lebanon. The Saudi-encouraged resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was a bold move designed to challenge Iran’s Hezbollah proxy and expose its control over the Lebanese state. It would certainly do him no harm to accept Eisenkot’s offer!

If Pax Americana is dead in the Middle East, it’s only because its two Presidents Obama and Trump have euthanized it. Foreign leaders who recognize America’s contribution to a stable world are trying unsuccessfully to wake the slumbering giant. In the meanwhile French President Emmanuel Macron is filling the vacuum on Lebanon; the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran have launched a new initiative in Sochi to achieve a political settlement in Syria; hot spots like Iraqi Kurdistan and Yemen risk triggering wider conflicts.

Israel, Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab states would welcome a more engaged America into their backyard but until this happens are taking care of their own business. Israel and Saudi Arabia aren’t sitting on their hands in anticipation of an American decision that may never come even though Trump has less than three years before the next American presidential elections.

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.
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