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The Saudis Team Up With Israel

Saudi and Israeli diplomats jointly announced that they've held five meetings in secret since early last year in India, Italy, and the Czech Republic.

The reason? Iran. The Israelis and the Saudis have a common enemy in Tehran, and they're increasingly relying on each other now that the United States, contrary to the interests of both, might ease sanctions if a nuclear deal gets hammered out later this year.

Retired Saudi general Anwar Majed Eshki and Israeli diplomat Dore Gold shook hands in front of the cameras during their announcement at the Council on Foreign Relations—a bigger deal than it seems. Not because it suddenly means that Israel and Saudi Arabia are best friends forever—fat chance of that ever happening—but because shaking hands with or even saying hello to an Israeli is a crime in some Arab countries, even in Lebanon which is more open-minded and cosmopolitan than the lot of them.

But bigotries can fade in even the most reactionary countries over time and under the right circumstances, and it's actually happening in Saudi Arabia.

Eli Lake covered the event for Bloomberg and described the Saudi general's speech this way:

He laid out a brief history of Iran since the 1979 revolution, highlighting the regime's acts of terrorism, hostage-taking and aggression. He ended his remarks with a seven-point plan for the Middle East. Atop the list was achieving peace between Israel and the Arabs. Second came regime-change in Iran. Also on the list were greater Arab unity, the establishment of an Arab regional military force, and a call for an independent Kurdistan to be made up of territory now belonging to Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

Arab unity is a castle in the sky. Never mind hopeless cases like Syria and Iraq. Not even the tiniest Arab countries like Lebanon and Bahrain can manage to unify themselves locally. An Arab regional military force wouldn't require absolute unity (see NATO), but at the very least it requires participating states to be on good terms with each other. The Arab states right now, though, are as fractious as ever. The yearning for unity in that part of the world is so strong because the lack of it is as painful as it is destructive.

But take a look at the other points Eshki made.

He says Saudi Arabia's number one priority is peace between Israelis and Arabs. Read that sentence again and let it sink in. Saudi Arabia's number one priority is peace between Israelis and Arabs. Not between Israelis and Palestinians, but between Israel and the entire Arab world.

Try not to be overly skeptical. It's true that the history between Muslims and Jews is long and unpleasant, but the history between Muslims and Christians is equally long and unpleasant, yet Saudi Arabia has normal relations with every Christian nation on earth. The only Arab countries that don't have normal relations with the United States right now are Syria and Sudan. American relations with Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan are outstanding. Jordan's relations with Israel are outstanding. Morocco also has cordial, albeit quiet and semi-secret, relations with Israel.

Officially, the Saudis don't recognize Israel's right to exist, but at least they acknowledge the reality of Israel's existence, and they're increasing recognizing that the two nations have common interests and common real enemies.

Israel is not a real enemy. It's not even a competitor. It's a country the Saudis find distasteful for real and imagined reasons.

The Israelis are not going to attack Saudi Arabia, ever. The Iranians probably won't either, but they very well may back proxies Shia militias inside the country. They've been doing it for years in Lebanon and Iraq, and now they're doing it in Syria and Yemen.

Iran is to Saudi Arabia what Russia was to the United States during the Cold War. But declaring Israel an enemy of Saudi Arabia makes no more sense than declaring Peru an enemy of the United States.

So what if the Saudis find Israel distasteful? They find the United States distasteful, too, but we can work together well enough without rancor when our interests overlap. It's strange, but true: Saudi Arabia is like a watered-down version of ISIS domestically and Britain internationally.

Riyadh did propose a peace deal with Jerusalem in 2002. They'll recognize the Jewish state if the Israelis withdraw to the 1967 borders, accept a Palestinian state, and allow the right of return to all the children of all the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war. That's not going to happen, of course. Israel has no room for millions of Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of whom have never set foot inside the country. But the Saudi proposal could at least be a starting point for negotiations. Either way, the Saudis made it clear more than a decade ago that they'll be willing to recognize Israel's right to exist in the future under certain conditions. The current hostility—which is clearly not what it used to be anyway—need not be eternal.

It's not just the Saudi government that's coming around. Saudi citizens are viewing the region more realistically, too. A recent poll conducted by the IDC Institute for Policy and Strategy found that only 18 percent of Saudis view Israel as their principal enemy. 22 percent said that distinction belongs to ISIS while a whopping 53 percent fingered Iran.

Much of the Middle East seems stubbornly resistant to positive change, but history is a river, not a statue. All things eventually pass.

“What we think here in Israel about the Saudis is not exactly what they are,” said the IDC's Alex Mintz. The same goes double for the Saudi view of Israelis, of course, but as retired Israeli general Shimon Shapira told Lake, “we discovered we have the same problems and same challenges and some of the same answers.”

 

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