The House of Saud is
cozying up to Israel
combat the growing threat of Tehran
By MARTIN CHULOV in the
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sat
down in Jordan last September for a secret summit with Saudi Arabia’s
national security director, Bandar bin Sultan.
It was a curious postscript to the
recent war between the Jewish state and Hezbollah, which five months on has
clearly started a thaw in one of the region’s most entrenched stand-offs.
In Washington this month, long-serving
Saudi ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal made an extraordinary appearance at
a conference held by US Jewish leaders to mark the appointment of a State
Department official to combat anti-semitism.
Days earlier, according to Israeli
officials, Saudi monarch King Abdullah had told feuding Palestinian leaders
he had summonsed to Mecca that their real feud lay not with their historic
foe, Israel, but with a new regional menace — Iran.
And herein lies the driver of the
House of Saud’s canoodling — a “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” world-view
that sees the Jewish state as a crucial part of a regional bulwark against a
resurgent Persian empire, and is prepared to look past decades of enmity to
Things have come a long way from the
days the Saudi regime branded Israel as the loathed “Zionist enemy that
occupies Jerusalem.” And, despite the expedient motives, the Olmert
Government is starting to see an open alliance with Riyadh — maybe even
diplomatic ties — as a real possibility.
“They are making very unambiguous
noises about Iran being the main threat,” said Eran Lerman, a former deputy
chief of Israeli military intelligence.
A SHOCK FOR THE PALESTINIANS
“The Palestinians came back shocked
from Mecca. The message was,
about Israel, the threat is Iran’.”
President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas Prime
Minister Ismail Haniyeh and his politburo chief, Khaled Mashaal, ended up
doing a deal in Mecca, after months of murderous infighting among their
followers, at the behest of the Saudis, who have since couched the
initiative as a means to kick-start stagnant Israeli-Palestinian peace
The fact the Saudis chose Mecca for
the summit wasn’t by coincidence. This is about religious identity and
sending a message that a good Sunni doesn’t play into the hands of Shia
Prospects of peace in the Holy Land
were again cited last week as a reason for Prince Faisal’s bonhomie
(cheerful friendliness) with Jewish leaders.
But new friends for Israel are hard to
come by in the Arab world. And, while happy with the overtures from the
Saudis, the motives are clear. So, too, are the potential strategic gains.
“Saudi Arabia is a Wahabi state,” said
Lerman, now Middle East director of the American Jewish Committee. “They
began their term as being murderously anti-Shia, and have not really
moderated much ever since.”
Ever since Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad was elected 18 months ago, Riyadh has been wary of his regional
ambitions. They see the hand of the Shia Persians in Iraq, and in southern
Lebanon, where Iranian-trained Hezbollah guerillas took the fight to Israel
last summer. And they fear the impact of a possible Shia uprising among
their own Shia minority.
Theologically, the House of Saud — the
keeper of the two holiest Islamic shrines — rejects the Shia interpretation
of Islam. Culturally, the kingdom does not want the Iranians playing a
bigger role in the Arab world. Defensively, it fears Iran’s nuclear
ambitions. And economically, Riyadh’s massive oil revenues could be hit if
oil-rich Iran moves on to a bigger stage.
The Saudi rearguard action is to align
with Sunni states — and anyone else. Its overtures to Israel have been
well-received by Jerusalem’s most important backers, the Bush regime, which
could well do with progress in at least one Middle Eastern headache — the
Palestinian question — before their term in office ends next year.
SUNNI - SAUDI CORNERSTONE
The perceived threat from Iran has
transformed Saudi Arabia into the cornerstone of regional Sunni hegemony of
the so-called moderate states — an image that is hard to reconcile with the
strict burkha-clad Saudi society. But the kingdom’s strategic value makes
its democratic shortcomings easier for the US to overlook. As well as
helping out in the Palestinian territories, Saudi involvement could prop up
the struggling pro-Western Government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad
Siniora and help to quell the sectarian chaos of Iraq.
The key selling point of the Mecca
deal was an implicit recognition of Israel in a new administration where
the reins of power are shared between Hamas and the Fatah party it
democratically defeated one year ago. Hamas has stopped short of directly
acknowledging the Jewish state, with indirect recognition through agreeing
to respect past peace deals — the furthest it has strayed from its hardline
Abbas and Haniyeh returned from Mecca
confident they had done enough to appease the Quartet and ease the suffering
of their people, many of whom have not seen a pay cheque in almost 12
months. The well-pleased Saudis waved the Palestinians off with a
$US 1 billion
cheque that blatantly broke the
international aid boycott, but which has not raised a murmur of opposition.
In the months before the deal was
finally done, Abbas had said implicit recognition of Israel was the best the
West could hope for at this stage. Hamas would not even table the other two
demands, full recognition and a renunciation of violence.
DEAL CREATES MORE PROBLEMS
The Saudi-brokered deal appears to
have created more problems for the US-Israeli alliance than answers. The
summit (of Rice, Abbas and Olmert) seems to herald another dilemma — how to
new Palestinian Government
without sending the Saudis packing.
New friendships need nurturing. And
with the kingdom willing to play a role in all the four crisis points in
the Middle East, Israel and the US will need to offer some significant
compromises of their own.
- The Australian
/ Feb 19, 07. By permission of News Limited
Recent Arab-Jewish contacts:
* Saudi national security
adviser Bandar bin Sultan met privately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert in Jordan in September, said Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s former
ambassador to Washington. He said it was the highest-level Saudi-Israeli
meeting he’d ever heard of.
* The United Arab Emirates has
invited a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American
Jewish Organizations. The conference, a 51-member umbrella group, is a
strong supporter of Israel.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres met the emir of Qatar in late
January after taking part in a debate with Arab students there. It was
the highest-level Israeli meeting with the Gulf nation since 1996, when
Peres visited as prime minister.
Feb 22, 07. Foreign ministers of
seven Arab countries issued a joint statement following a Madrid conference,
expressing desire to “advance together toward recognition and normalization
of relations with Israel.”
The desire was made in a joint
statement issued at the end of a Spanish-Arab conference in Madrid hosted by
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.
The conference was attended by 19
members of the Arab League, including the foreign ministers of Syria, Yemen,
Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia.
In the statement, the officials
expressed their hope that the Mecca agreement signed between rival
Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah would lead to the establishment of a
national unity government in the Palestinian Authority, “which could
contribute to finding a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Moratinos said that the agreement
expressed in the joint statement re-emphasized the vision expressed in the
2002 Arab League summit in Beirut. He said that his country wanted to work
together with the European Union in order to enable a Palestinian government
to be a partner for a dialogue with the international community. - ynet
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