A Swiss newspaper, Basler Zeitung, reported recently that a secret alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia aimed at restraining Iran’s imperial desire for a land mass between Tehran and the Mediterranean was moving into a new phase. While there aren’t formal diplomatic ties between the two countries, military cooperation does exist. In fact, the Saudi government sent a military delegation to Jerusalem several months ago to discuss Iran’s role as a destabilizing force in the region.
Now it appears that officials in Saudi Arabia are considering the purchase of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, as well as the Trophy Active Protection System developed by Rafael and Israel Aerospace. Seen against a backdrop in which Riyadh rejects any official normalization with Israel, this development is quite remarkable. It also bespeaks a new-found respect for Israel and an emerging belief that in any Sunni defense condominium Israel will have a role to play.
It is instructive that neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt was actively hostile to the address change for the American Embassy in Jerusalem. They voted to repudiate the decision in the U.N. vote on the matter, but that was the end of it. The tide of alliance building is moving in a new and unpredictable direction in the Middle East.
The Saudi stance is ostensibly related to a Palestinian-Israeli deal on a two-state solution, but the reality is that Iran is the real threat that poses the greatest danger to Riyadh. An Israel with its advanced technology has become an ally of necessity, not necessarily an ally of long-term common interests, albeit history has a way of uniting unlikely bedfellows.
A recent missile fired from Yemen to Riyadh awakened the Saudi leadership to their vulnerability. Hence, the interest in the Iron Dome. The missile — identified as Houthi fired — had all the markings and signature of an Iranian weapon. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said this was an “Iranian act of war.” Saudi Arabia has resources, but despite the military training of the crown prince, the Saudis are not yet prepared to go to war against Iran. They will build and train and purchase advanced technology, but they will not revert to war, not yet anyway.
This explains why the Iron Dome is so critical as a strategic defense. It is impossible to know if the Houthis will launch again soon. But there is every indication that will be the case. The Houthis are a mere surrogate for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. They are armed, supported and directed from Iran.
The shakeout in the Middle East will have many turns and missteps. For now, it provides an interesting opportunity for Israel. From a U.N. vote establishing the state in 1948 to the present, Israel has been surrounded by hostile nations. That may change in the years ahead.
Imponderables fill the Middle East air. Will demonstrations against the Iranian government lead to its fall? Will the crown prince’s desire to modernize Saudi Arabia and seize control of military affairs work? Will the Egyptian war in the Sinai against ISIS and al Qaeda forces be successful? Will the United States continue to be an active participant in Middle East affairs? Is Russia prepared to make continued sacrifices to secure Bashar Assad’s position in Syria? These questions and a host of others dot the landscape.
If the Saudi-Israeli alliance yields some form of regional stability, many of the issues described above disappear. That is why the alliance is the harbinger of hope and the insurance policy for the moment.
• Herbert London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.