Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei presumably wants to choose his successor, but he cannot publicly name one without creating a rival undermining his own authority.
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Recently, many pieces have been published about the Gulf Arab countries and Israel arguing that: there is a great deal of convergence in the perceptions of both regarding the Iranian threat; there is growing covert security coordination between them against Iran; and the countries have taken modest moves toward the normalization of relations. These pieces argue that the Iranian threat makes Israel a convenient/necessary ally to the Gulf Cooperation Council states. This is because Israel shares the same threat perception with GCC states, and possesses the necessary military, technical, and intelligence capabilities that could make even quiet cooperation with the Gulf Arab countries very useful in their efforts to counter Iran. Such rapprochement, the argument goes, would even have positive effects on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Though a unified GCC foreign policy does not exist, looking primarily at Saudi Arabia and Israel, it is apparent there is no genuine convergence of interests. A rapprochement with Israel would be harmful to the Saudi state in its rivalry with Iran, and there would be no real gain from it. Moreover, tougher Saudi policies toward Israel would be more beneficial in countering Iran, and, more importantly, in restoring the national rights of the Palestinian people.
Different Threat Perceptions
While Saudi Arabia considers Iran a threat to the Middle East’s stability, and sees the regional status quo as a strategic priority, Israel considers Iran a threat to its own regime security. These differences in threat perception compel Saudi Arabia to adopt policies that do not warrant closer ties with Israel. This is clear when comparing the divergent Saudi and Israeli positions toward two major strategies that Iran pursues in its quest for regional hegemony.
First, the countries have different positions on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia prefers a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, while Israel seeks to be the sole nuclear power in the region. Aware of both states’ nuclear threat to regional stability, Saudi officials often associate their rejection of the Iranian nuclear project with a similar rejection of Israeli nuclear weapons. This position has been articulated a number of times by top Saudi officials, from former Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal at a 2010 press conference in London to the deputy Saudi ambassador to the United Nations in 2015.
These diverging perceptions are also apparent in the case of Iran’s destabilizing strategy of creating loyalist sectarian militias and weakening Arab states. For Israel, this strategy is generally only threatening when it poses a direct threat to its regime’s security. Otherwise, Israel’s stance is indifferent or could perhaps even view it as indirectly beneficial in some instances. In the words of one analyst, the ongoing conflict between different parties in Syria “serves Israeli interests because it reduces the likelihood of these parties … to provoke Israel.” Moreover, Israel, similar to Iran, acts as a destabilizing force in the region. For example, Israel still occupies land in Arab territories (Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese) and launches attacks on Lebanon and Syria without regard to international law, the sovereignty of neighboring countries, and regional stability.
Unchanging Position of the Saudis on Israel
Most of the advocates of the Saudi-Israeli rapprochement have used general impressions gleaned from social media and statements by unofficial observers to make sweeping generalizations and conclusions about Saudi society’s supposed embrace of a more positive attitude toward Israel. However, public opinion surveys tell another story. For example, in the latest version of the Arab Index, 81 percent of Saudis were opposed to recognition of Israel as a legitimate state.
In addition to the public opposition, the official position of the kingdom is not to recognize Israel until the latter accepts the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from all the Arab territories occupied in 1967, a just resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue in accordance with United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, and the establishment of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. The Saudi government has consistently confirmed this official position. This is evident in the final communiqué of the recent Arab summit in Jordan, where Arab leaders, including Saudi Arabia, reasserted this position.
Israel is an Obstacle to Advancing Saudi Military Capabilities
Some advocates of the Israeli-Saudi rapprochement argue it would benefit Saudi Arabia militarily. This is unlikely. Though the United States is the main ally of Saudi Arabia and its principal supplier of weapons, U.S. agreements with Israel adversely affect the kingdom’s ability to benefit fully from this alliance. In 2008, the U.S. Congress passed a law stipulating that any arms sale to any state in the Middle East should include an assurance that the deal would not harm Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge. The law defines QME as “the ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition … through the use of superior military means, possessed in sufficient quantity … that in their technical characteristics are superior in capability to those of such other individual or possible coalition of states or non-state actors.” As a result, Israel and its lobby in Washington have continuously used this commitment to make it difficult for the Saudi state to acquire the latest military technologies from the United States, and its deals are often delayed for further scrutiny. Recently, Israeli officials voiced concern and unease with a potential U.S.-Saudi $110 billion arms deal. Since Israel makes it difficult for the Saudis to benefit militarily from a common ally in order to preserve its QME, then it is highly unlikely that a rapprochement would make Israel change its position in achieving this strategic goal.
Benefits of Tougher Policies against Israel
Since the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization was signed more than two decades ago, peace efforts have consistently failed. As a result, many analysts feel the two-state solution is an illusion, citing Israeli rejectionism. They believe that every time the Arab states offer an initiative for peace, Israel’s response has been more settlements, a tighter siege on Gaza, and more oppressive policies that make prospects for peace impossible. The current status of the peace process cannot be altered by rapprochement with Israel, the stronger party, which has no interest in making any concessions; rather, the more effective strategy is to strengthen the weaker party and improve its bargaining power to force the stronger party to submit to a fair solution.
Adopting tougher policies against Israel and more supportive ones toward the Palestinians would increase the prospects for peace, and help enhance Saudi Arabia’s Arab and Muslim legitimacy. Given the massive support for the Palestinian cause among Arabs and Muslims, the more an Arab and Muslim state supports the Palestinians in achieving their national rights, the more legitimate it is as an “Arab” and “Muslim” country. Securing such legitimacy is vital to the interests of Saudi Arabia because its territory is the motherland of Arabs and the cradle of Islam, and hosts its two holiest sites. This strategic interest is highlighted in the new reform agenda – Saudi Vision 2030. The first of the vision’s three pillars is the kingdom’s “status as the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds.” Any rapprochement with Israel – which occupies Arab lands and Islamic holy sites dear to the hearts of the Arab people – will seriously compromise this goal. A rapprochement with Israel could also expose Saudi Arabia to even more terrorist threats emanating from groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which have often used the failure of Saudi Arabia to effectively support the Palestinian cause to justify their targeting of the Saudi state.
Finally, the legitimacy that comes from refusing to cooperate with Israel would help to further reduce Iranian influence in the region. Iran’s support to Palestinian liberation movements has earned it respect among the people of the region. The best way for Saudi Arabia to counter this is to restore the Arab role in supporting the national rights of the Palestinians and block Iran from exploiting the Palestinian cause. This means that more confrontational positions against Israel and its settlement policies, blockade of Gaza, and occupation of Arab territories, and more support for Palestinian forces and factions, will be critical to confronting Iran.
Rapprochement with Israel is not in the interest of Saudi Arabia (or, for that matter, any GCC state) because there is no gain from shouldering its enormous cost and risk. Saudi Arabia’s interests in achieving peace in the region, ridding the region of nuclear weapons, restoring stability and prosperity for Arab states, and restoring the rights of the Palestinians cannot be achieved through rapprochement with Israel. In fact, rapprochement would only serve to alienate Saudi Arabia from the region and weaken it overall.
Beneath Saudi officials’ tough talk on the Regional Headquarters Program lies a strong desire for constructive engagement with top global firms and attracting greater inflows of foreign investment.
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