Alexander Shapiro
Dedicated Bridge-Builder Working at the Shaharit Institute

Why a (Now Unlikely) Israeli-Saudi Coalition was in Israeli and U.S. Interest

Israel currently has an unprecedented opportunity to form stronger defensive and economic coalitions with Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Or, had, before President Trump’s announcement today recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

This coalition could have been a check on Iran, and could have given Israel leverage in negotiations with the Palestinians. This alliance would also have decreased U.S. responsibility for Middle East stability and counter-terrorism efforts. Unfortunately, President Trump’s announcement today derailed all of these possibilities.

Before today’s announcement, Israel’s relationships with Egypt and Saudi Arabia were at an all-time high. The countries have openly acknowledged their shared interests in containing Iran, fighting terrorism, sharing intelligence, and increasing economic ties. Saudi Arabia’s ascendant Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), has strong domestic incentive to actively counter Iran, increase Saudi regional influence, and diversify the Saudi economy. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is failing to contain domestic terrorism, and Egypt’s economy needs all the help it can get. Israel could help both countries with the above issues through Israeli expertise in counter-terrorism, intelligence, technology, and through greater regional economic integration.

Israel’s national security and economic interests would be promoted by creating a stronger relationship with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among other Arab states. This relationship would be an important check on Iranian influence, especially in Syria, where Arab-funded militias have a greater ability to operate than Israel does. Israel identified Iran as a greater threat in Syria than ISIS. Israel also faces growing threats from Hezbollah in Lebanon, where Saudi Arabia is also actively trying to counter Iranian influence.

Israel additionally has its own economic problems, and would benefit greatly from decreased regional economic isolation.

Finally, a stronger relationship with Arab states would give Israel greater leverage in negotiations with the Palestinians. The recent Hamas-Fatah reconciliation could be an opportunity for renewed negotiation, but only if Hamas’s military wing agrees to disarm. Egypt is a crucial player in these negotiations, and holds influence over both Hamas and Fatah, especially as it controls the Rafah border crossing. Israel could also use an improved strategic relationship to push Arab states to ensure their aid to the Palestinians is not used to support terror.

Pro-Israel strategists may argue that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is crucial to Israeli national security, as control over Jerusalem will affect future land negotiations that could leave Israel vulnerable in its geographically skinniest areas. But the Palestinian conflict and Sunni extremism are not Israel’s greatest security concern at the moment: Israel has seen violence sharply decrease since improving its defenses after the Second Intifada, and the Israeli government seems to be content with the Palestinian status quo. Instead, Iran is Israel’s greatest security threat, and an Israeli-Arab coalition would be critical in containing Iran.

Additionally, in my opinion, Israel’s greatest threat relating to the Palestinians is for Israel to become undemocratic, as Israel’s Palestinian population overtakes its Jewish population in size. Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital greatly reduces the chance of  preventing this issue by agreeing on a two-state solution.

A closer relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia could draw Israel into Saudi Arabia’s increasingly brash and competitive strategy against Iran. Saudi Arabia will almost certainly engage in escalating proxy and/or State v. State wars against Iran in the next ten-fifteen years. With this in mind, Israel would have to take a limited and cautious approach to any Arab coalition. But, I still believe that Israel could benefit from helping Arab states to counter Iran, shedding responsibility away from itself.

An Israeli-Arab coalition is in the United States’ interests as well, especially (and ironically) in the interests of the people that are preventing such a coalition from occurring by supporting today’s announcement.

U.S. Conservatives and “America First” proponents suggest that the United States should not be spending U.S. blood and treasure on foreign interventions. I recently heard Senator Tom Cotton (who may be the next CIA Director, if we are to believe the media) speak at the Hudson Institute. Senator Cotton specifically suggested pushing for an Israeli-Saudi Coalition. He was followed later by Steve Bannon, who argued that President Trump’s election was a repudiation of U.S. interventionist foreign policy.

It is true that a strengthened relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia may allow the United States to take a more hands-off approach in the Middle East. This is in the United States’ long-term interests.

But conservatives must choose what they think is best for Israeli and U.S. security and prosperity: an Israeli-Arab coalition, or recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. The Arab world’s strong response to President Trump’s announcement shows that they likely cannot have both. Today, I believe the conservatives made the wrong choice.

Sub-Section: Why Would Saudi Arabia and Egypt Agree to Stronger Ties with Israel?

In November, a Saudi newspaper published an unprecedented interview with the Israeli military chief, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. Lt. Eisenkot said that Saudi Arabia and Israel hold a shared threat in Iran, and that Israel would be willing to share information with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s ascendant Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), is looking to ensure domestic support by countering Iran across the region, and by establishing Saudi dominance in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). A stronger relationship with Israel would aid MBS in both tasks. Saudi leadership in the GCC is being threatened by: (1) the Qataris, who have resisted Saudi demands in the current GCC crisis, and who hold power through their relationships with Iran and the United States, their natural gas, and their support for Al-Jazeera news; as well as (2) the Emirates, who are the third largest importer of arms in the world, with a growing military footprint and an army that is considered to be the best in the Middle East.

Egypt is struggling to maintain domestic security, especially in the Sinai region that borders Israel. Israel and Egypt currently have “unprecedented” intelligence sharing, causing Egyptian-Israeli relations to have “quietly reached a high point.” Egypt would benefit heavily from even greater intelligence-sharing and joint training with the Israelis.

Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt need to make economic reforms. Saudi Arabia is attempting to diversify away from oil as global energy markets shift, and Egypt is generally struggling to maintain a stable and prosperous economy. Egypt and Israel already have growing economic cooperation, including in exports, natural gas, and tourism. Egypt would benefit from greater economic relations with its neighbor, and Saudi Arabia could use Israeli technological expertise, and the Israeli market, to diversify and expand its economy.

There is no guarantee an Israeli-Arab coalition could have been formed before President Trump’s announcement. Many Arabs still disapprove of Israel, and see it as a regional threat. But there is support among Arab leaders, at least, for stronger relationships with Israel, and the strategic equation adds up for all parties.

About the Author
Alexander "Jake" Shapiro works at the Shaharit Institute, an Israeli NGO working to create common cause amongst Israel's diverse populations. Jake previously served as a volunteer activist and researcher in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Lod. Jake studied international relations and political science at the University of Maryland - College Park.
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