This is part two of a two-part series on the growing possibility of cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. If you have not done so already, we recommend first reading The Unspoken Alliance: Israel and the House of Saud - Part I
Experts say Saudi Arabia is not being entirely forthcoming when it comes to relations, or even just strategic cooperation, with Israel.
“On the one hand, Saudis feel threatened by Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s hostile rhetoric, so they might turn a blind eye to an Israeli strike [that uses Saudi airspace to reach Iran],” argued Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Caryle Murphy. “On the other hand, supporting an Israeli attack on a fellow Muslim nation would provoke an outcry among Muslims.”
Dr. F. Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Institute, discounted the possibility of overt cooperation, but added that “some in the Saudi top echelons would certainly be happy with an Israeli strike, [while] others are more cautious about the potential consequences for Saudi Arabia, with Iranian threats to retaliate against the Gulf states and American interests there”.
Gause was also skeptical of any meaningful cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia: “I don't see any short-term possibilities here. [However,] it is possible that, in the wake of the fall of Bashar al-Assad (if that happens), there might be some covert communications about a campaign against Hezbollah,” which is widely viewed as Iran's regional agent, one of whose missions is to undermine Saudi allies in Lebanon and further afield.
American analyst Mitchell Bard believes a reluctance to talk to Israel is dictated by Saudis' general tendency to opt for cooperation only in matters that concern the regime's survival. “The Saudis will side with Israel only if it helps them to stay in power. Communications on any other levels are very unlikely, due to the anti-Semitic nature of the kingdom," he stated, noting that drawing closer to the Jewish state would only be feasible if the Saudi authorities were pressured by the US or in the case of a younger and more liberal administration coming to power.
Indeed, with a school curriculum that promulgates hatred towards Jews, normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel seems a distant hope.
In 2011, the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom reported that Saudi schoolbooks continued to promote anti-Jewish sentiment and encouraged war against the so-called "pigs and apes", a common Muslim reference to Jews.
The report found that the danger of such a curriculum was acute because of its global reach. “Five million Saudi students are exposed to [it] in Saudi classrooms each year. Moreover, as the controlling authority of the two holiest shrines of Islam, Saudi Arabia is able to disseminate its religious materials among the millions of Muslims making the hajj [Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca] each year… [Whereas the country’s] oil wealth… enables it to disseminate its textbooks far and wide”.
Radical religious materials are distributed by a vast Saudi-sponsored network to Muslim schools, mosques and libraries throughout the world. The curriculum “is followed by most of the 19 international academies founded in major world cities by the Saudi government, each of which is chaired by the local Saudi ambassador,” the report continued.
Saudi support for extremism, however, is deemed to be counter-productive.
“This [radical] approach backfired,” said Murphy, referring to terrorist activities against Saudi and foreign targets that began in the mid-1990s and intensified in the 2000s.
Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum, a leading expert on modern Middle Eastern history at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, agreed, saying that the government in Riyadh has since learned to be very cautious about support for extremists.
"The Saudis are against hardliners, because after seizing power, they always try to depose such totalitarian regimes like the Saudi royal family," he argued.
Yet, despite changing its stance on Islamists, Saudi policy towards Israel remains intact. But Murphy rebuffed the claim, insisting that the kingdom was among the first Middle Eastern countries open to talk to Israel.
To back it up, the journalist referred to the peace plan promoted by then-Crown Prince Fahd bin Abd al Aziz (1981) and years later by the current leader Abdullah (2002).
The initiatives – both endorsed by the Arab League – stated that Saudi Arabia was willing to formalize relations with Israel (and even encourage other Arab states to follow suit), if Israel withdrew from the territories conquered in 1967 and established an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jerusalem as its capital. The plans also called on the Jewish state to solve the issue of Palestinians who fled the country during the 1948 war (the so-called “Palestinian refugees”), as well as cease all settlement activity in what it called the “occupied territories”.
“Israel hasn’t done anything to address these issues,” argued Murphy. “For the past 60 years it has been the same problem, nothing has changed”.
Teitelbaum disagreed and stressed Saudi reluctance to negotiate. “The Saudis pushed for serious Israeli concessions. It was a take-it-or-leave-it plan. While Israel wanted to negotiate the terms, the Saudis were reluctant to do so,” he noted, charging that Saudi Arabia would probably be the last country to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
Teitelbaum’s comments are backed by several historical instances. In 2002, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would go to the Arab League summit to discuss the plan, but was never invited. The Saudis were also reluctant to visit Jerusalem despite multiple invitations from the Israeli side.
However, this posturing is nothing new. During Jimmy Carter’s tenure, the Saudis tried to sabotage the Israel-Egypt peace treaty after receiving the sought-after sophisticated aircraft from the US. A similar situation occurred during the debate over the sale of AWACS radar planes. Initially, the Saudis announced a peace plan and then, when the deal was sealed, some of the country’s clerics called for a jihad against Israel.
Analyzing the root of the problem, Gause pointed at Arab public opinion as a determining factor: “[Saudi Arabia and Israel] certainly share common enemies, and have a common great power ally. But there are also lots of things standing in the way. Saudi public opinion is as anti-Israeli as the public opinion in other Arab states. There is no real up-side politically, in terms of the domestic scene, for any Saudi leader to move toward Israel publicly. The one thing that could change that somewhat would be an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement based on the two-state solution. That might open the field for a Saudi embassy in Israel. But that seems very far off right now.”
With no peace in sight and the Iranian nuclear threat constantly looming, Israel might soon confront another issue -- Saudi Arabia's atomic ambitions.
A senior Saudi defense official noted in January 2012 that “we cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don’t ... If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit.”
Murphy sees this stance as driven by necessity, not choice. “Saudi Arabia doesn’t want a nuclear bomb and has been advocating a nuclear-free Middle East for quite a long time. The Saudi leaders prefer to invest their money in other more important fields but if Iranians end up obtaining a bomb, the kingdom will probably follow suit,” she stated, conceding that Saudi Arabia doesn’t have the necessary human resources (including scientists and engineers) to carry out such a project.
However, if the kingdom is so prone to panic attacks over Iran’s nuclear drive, why didn’t it pursue the nuclear arms race, given its money and influence?
“I think that the American connection is the answer,” said Gause. “Saudi proliferation might lead to a break between Washington and Riyadh, and the Saudis would think many times over before taking that course. It might happen, if Iran does weaponize, but so far the Saudis do not seem to be taking any public steps to develop their own nuclear infrastructure”.
Bard shared Gause’s view, but added that the Saudis were also afraid to provoke the ire of Jerusalem.
But what if Israel does attack and even manages to eliminate Iran (at least temporarily) as a regional nuclear player? Would it untie Saudi hands, prompting them to pursue their own hegemonic ambitions more aggressively? Experts are divided.
Teitelbaum believed dis-empowering Iran would definitely bolster Saudi hegemony in the Gulf (something that the US and Israel would probably support). While Bard argued the kingdom was more interested in its own survival rather than hegemonic ambitions.
Whatever the case, the removal of the Iranian threat (if it does happen) might force Saudi leaders to look for another "punching bag". This could be Israel.
But there is a ray of hope.
In April, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that a Saudi general “hesitatingly and conditionally” courted Israel in an article published in the American military magazine Joint Force Quarterly.
The prince-general Naef Bin-Ahmed Al-Saud “praised President Shimon Peres” and called for "encouraging Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs to get to know each other at least initially over the Internet while discussing sports, photography and other common interests - including peace prospects."
The paper also quoted him as saying that “Saudi Arabia… wants very much to learn the lessons of last summer's protests in Israel, as well as those of the riots in Britain in August… The Kingdom's leadership has been observing developments in Israel as a test of social media's effectiveness in organizing non-violent protest to create significant shifts in security and economic policy”.
Will it pave the way to any communication between Riyadh and Jerusalem? Time will tell...