Aaron Kalman
Working for Israel and the Jewish People

Will Iran deal warm Israel’s ties with Saudi Arabia?

Much has been written about the recently signed deal with Iran, and the reservations and concerned voiced by Israeli politicians. So, with the risk of being way off target, I’ll throw my (somewhat hopeful) two cents worth into the public discussion, highlighting one aspect of the deal has only barely been mentioned by Israeli news outlets, and was more or less ignored by Jewish media around the world: the potential impact this could have on the relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

One Times of Israel headline recently stated, “US defense secretary heading to Israel, Saudi over nuke deal fears.” The wording of this headline was one of many that put the two countries side by side in their fears following the signing of the deal with Tehran, and not accidentally.

Both Riyadh and Jerusalem were displeased by the agreement, the International Business Times wrote, explaining that, “For both of these regional powerhouses, Iran is a sworn enemy that stands to gain a great deal from the recent agreement.”

To fully understand why Israel and Saudi Arabia are so deeply concerned with deal one must remember that, among other things, both these countries are locked in a de-facto armed conflict with Iran, fighting Iranian proxies in the Middle East.

Israel faces two large terror groups on its borders: in the north Hezbollah and in the south Hamas. Both have been accused by military experts and politicians around the world to be backed with Iranian funds and know how. In a slightly different way, Saudi forces are engaged in a civil war in Yemen against the Houthi rebels – a group supported by Tehran.

Add to this the feelings in both Jerusalem and Riyadh that the deal will not only fuel armed terrorists fighting their armies, but also give legitimacy to a regime that has voiced its wishes to be the sole empire in the Middle East, and its easy to see why both are responding to the deal with a similar message of disappointment. The Telegraph went as far as saying Israel and Saudi Arabia were “presenting a united front” following the deal with Iran.

But the question isn’t only how these two countries, arguably two of the Washington’s most important allies in the region, respond to the treaty. The question is whether this may trigger a warming of relations between the two, at some level or another.

The New York Times recently wrote that there was “an unusually public alignment of interests between Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab neighbors as they moved into tacit alliance against the shared enemies of Hamas and Iran.” Sometimes, as one saying goes, a common enemy can help create new friendships.

According to a number of reports (such as this one) Israeli and Saudi security officials had met some five times before the signing of the deal. The meetings, these reports said, were held in neutral countries, were all focused on the Iran deal and the day after it would be signed. It’s not unthinkable that those channels would remain open now that the deal has been signed.

But that’s not all.

Only a few days before the agreement with Iran was signed, a report about Saudi Prince Talal’s plan to visit Israel went viral online. While some Western news outlets removed the story from their websites, calling it a “prank” or “hoax,” the algemeiner notes that not a single Arab-speaking newspaper has done the same; it also questions why the Saudis would allow such a “fake” story to run with no denial.

Was the story about the planned visit a hoax? It’s hard to tell, and I don’t have any inside information. But, the speed in which the idea spread and the readiness of people around the world — including Israel — to accept it as real are a good indicator that the two countries might be ready for relations that are slightly more formal than backroom meetings between security personal.

About the Author
Aaron Kalman is a Program Officer at the Ruderman Family Foundation, working to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community. Formerly an advisor to Israel's Minister of Diaspora Affairs and a Jewish Agency emissary to Sydney, Australia, Aaron has an M.A. in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and a B.Ed. from Herzog College.
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