With New BFFs Like Saudi Arabia, Who Needs anti-Semitic Enemies?

Jerusalem and Riyadh suddenly have a lot in common - but the desert kingdom is still a fountain of fanatic oppression and anti-Jewish bile.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to refuse to take up its seat on the UN Security Council was the kind of grand, in-your-face dramatic gesture that Israelis dream about at night. It was the fulfillment, in fact, of a double fantasy.

On the one hand, Israel would like nothing better than to be voted onto the Security Council, arguably the world’s most influential international forum, as a sign of its “place among the nations”. Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor recently pledged that Israel would be competing with Belgium and German for Security Council membership in the 2019-2020 season but even that distant goal, observers believe, is no more than a pipe dream.

On the other hand, the brazen brush-off of the prestigious Council membership and the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s accompanying declaration of disdain for that body’s “double standards” was a grandiloquent show of defiance and chutzpah that made many Israelis burn with jealousy. Western observers may have tut-tutted over Riyadh’s juvenile petulance but for many Israelis it was a cathartic, Clint Eastwoodish moment, Middle East machismo at its best*.

When you add to that the public Saudi critique, shared by many Israelis, of U.S. President Barack Obama’s weakness, naivete and even “perfidy”, as Saudi Prince Turki would have it; when you mix in the Saudi dismay at Obama’s “appeasement” of Iran, “cowardice” in Syria and “wrongheaded” support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; when you take into account that the moribund Arab Spring has made old-style authoritarian regimes suddenly seem like the best of bad options; and when you factor in the age-old Arabian adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – small wonder that we are witnessing a virtual golden age in Israeli-Saudi relations, a honeymoon between bitter theological and ideological enemies who suddenly have so much in common.

Once reactionary, the Saudis are being widely portrayed as astute; once fanatic, they are now steadfast; once repressive, they now rule with a firm hand; once anti-Semitic to the core, they are now “standing with us shoulder to shoulder,” as one Israeli headline exclaimed this weekend, and sharing “common interests and views,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said publicly back in December, 2012.

There is even talk of a new Israeli-Saudi “axis”, an alliance of two countries who feel exposed and abandoned by Obama’s America; partners, perhaps, to a “grand bargain”, that includes both a united strategic front against Tehran and, if one wants to speculate, an explanation for what is being described by some well-placed sources as Netanyahu’s surprising flexibility on the Israeli-Palestinian track and, who knows, willingness to reconsider the abandoned Saudi peace initiative.

Of course, Saudi Arabia arrived at its newfound common ground with Israel from a completely different point of departure. It opposed the Arab Spring all across the board for fear that the virus of democratization would ultimately spread and infect Saudi Arabia itself. Riyadh, in fact, did its active best to undermine the popular insurrection altogether: it helped Bahrain suppress Shi'ite protests; supported Islamists over moderates in Tunisia; opposed the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo but backed the more radical and Salafist Al-Nour party; conducted a fierce tug of war with Qatar that contributed to the disintegration of the Syrian rebel movement and enabled its infiltration by Al-Qaida. And it opposes Iran, inter alia, as a spearhead of the age-old Sunni-Shi'ite confrontation that Israel once wanted no part in.

Not to mention the fact that Saudi Arabia remains one of the most autocratic, repressive, human-rights abusing countries in the world, where women are subjugated, rape victims lashed, LGBT’s persecuted, foreign workers enslaved, petty robbers dismembered, common criminals executed and practitioners of any religion other than Islam outlawed, hounded and, if they are foreign, ultimately expelled.

And just for the record, although Iran is a close competitor with Saudi Arabia for the world’s most repressive regime, women are nonetheless far better off under the Shi'ite ayatollahs than under their royal Sunni neighbors to the south: and they are allowed to drive.

And even though most Jewish organizations have curiously and somewhat suspiciously removed Saudi Arabia from their watch list in recent years, it remains a hotbed of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic agitation, a place where Wahhabi clerics can still compare Jews to pigs and apes while calling for martyrdom and jihad against the “Zionist usurpers”. Riyadh and Mecca continue to serve as the headquarters of a $100 billion world wide web of mosques and madrassas that propagate Saudi-financed textbooks that equal and often surpass the incitement of the Palestinian Authority, which Netanyahu’s government regularly rails against.

It is a country, as expert and author John Bradley wrote in his 2012 book “After the Arab Spring”, that "spews out a kind of anti-Semitic hatred not known since the Nazis."

Netanyahu’s hero Winston Churchill famously told the House of Commons in the wake of the Nazi invasion of Stalin’s Soviet Union: “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable mention of the devil in the House of Commons.” Thus, the new Israeli-Saudi bromance is an outgrowth of cold, strategic calculations that may be justifiable for national security needs, but it does tend to undercut moralistic arguments that Israel likes to make against Tehran’s repression or Damascus’ brutality or the excesses of fundamentalist Islamic regimes far and wide. One man’s brutal dictator, it seems, is the other’s far-sighted statesman.

Politics make strange bedfellows, of course, but the new and amorous relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh, you must admit, are somewhat kinky, if not downright perverse.

*PS – Historical footnote: Perhaps the Saudis drew inspiration for their dramatic gesture at the UN from T. E. Lawrence’s refusal 95 years ago to accept a knighthood from King George V.

The famous Lawrence of Arabia told the King at the private investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace that the British cabinet ministers were “crooks” and had reneged on their promises to grant independence and sovereignty to the Arab nation that had revolted against the Turks.

Follow Chemi Shalev on Twitter @ChemiShalev

Saudi Arabian King Abdullah giving a thumbs up in 2007.Credit: Bloomberg
Saudi women walking along the corniche of the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah. August 25, 2013.Credit: AFP

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