Israeli-Saudi Ties Signal Paradigm Shift in World Power Dynamics

This new constellation of forces also requires a substantial change in the political discussion

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, October 24, 2017.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, October 24, 2017.Credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Very soon you may get a call from the Saudi crown prince. Your cellphone will ring and the screen will show a call from country code 966. “This is Mohammed bin Salman speaking,” the caller will say, ”but you can call me MBS.” At first, you’ll be incredulous. “Mohammed bin Salman? This must be some kind of mistake. What would the Saudi monarchy want with me and my family? You’ve reached the Tapuhi residence, and I’m a computer technician from Gan Yavneh.”

“We know all that, Mr. Tapuhi,” the crown prince will casually reply. “Maybe you haven’t been informed, but your business is being included in the royal family’s expansion plan for 2020.”

“Can we talk about this?” you will skeptically say. “My daughter is a trainer in the Armored Corps and my brother works for the Defense Ministry.”

“Don’t you worry! Your brother has already been informed of all the details,” the crown prince will interrupt. “But I thought Saudi Arabia was an enemy state,” you will say suspiciously.

“Don’t you read the news? Sir, you’re stuck in the 1990s,” the prince will reply.

Even if such a scenario doesn’t exactly play itself out, it’s more likely now than ever. The increasingly close alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia is the most significant development at the current time. If we are to believe knowledgeable sources — from former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah — Saudi Arabia is also pressing Israel to confront the Shi’ite militia in Lebanon.

Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel is becoming better integrated than many previous Israeli governments into the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia is the dominant power, even if it is a region in which natural resources, destructive technologies and alliances between oppressive regimes set the tone. It is in fact the Israeli right wing, which had always ridiculed the idea of a New Middle East, that is now integrating into this new Middle East in which we live.

This new constellation of forces also requires a substantial change in the political discussion. Roughly put, we can say that over the past several decades in Israel, the political discussion was approached as a campaign between political camps. One deemed “the right” espoused a militarist, nationalist, anti-Arab ideology. The other camp, deemed “the left,” advocated for a civil, globalist and compromising line vis-à-vis the Arab world, although clearly the divisions were never really so simple.

The parties on the left were headed by former army men who never aspired to Israel’s integration into the region. They wanted to separate from it. The political argument centered roughly around where to draw the dividing lines and that defined the political identity of every Israeli.

But in November 2017, does that still apply? Not really. If a decade or two ago, the right venerated the army, opposed compromising with the Arabs and took a tough line with the Europeans and Americans, the current situation is very different. When it comes to the army, the case of Elor Azaria (who was convicted of manslaughter for killing an incapacitated Palestinian assailant) and the resignation of Moshe Ya’alon as defense minister around the same time were signs of growing conflict between the prime minister and the senior command in the army.

When it comes to relations with the United States, major figures in the Republican Party take a harder line on Israeli policy than Israel itself. On the regional level, Netanyahu is building an axis running through Saudi Arabia that includes a number of other Middle East players, among them the Palestinian Authority. The regional transformations are also causing change among the constellation of domestic political forces in Israel.

Under the current circumstances, the Israeli left is in a quandary. Its positions are no longer backed by the Europeans, who themselves are suffering from a wave of Islamophobic nationalism and internal division. It could toe the capricious American policy line, no less, but what is even more significant is that the Arab world doesn’t have a common stance with regard to Israel.

The current reality is a sort of Mobius strip — a twisted band on which it is impossible to determine what is on the inside and what is on the outside. News websites are now full of events that not long ago would have seemed preposterous. Netanyahu is waging all-out war against Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes when it turns out that the two are also in regular contact. And in the meantime, a new president of the United States is elected by appealing to the American public’s nationalist feelings, but that doesn’t prevent his associates from holding talks with representatives of the Russian evil empire.

On the surface, these are unrelated events but in actuality all of these are symptoms of the collapse of political discourse as we have known it. Needless to say, the current situation in the world is far from idyllic. The world is awash with conflict and war, but it doesn’t involve global civil war among conflicting ideologies. Ideological conflict has been replaced by battles among global networks each of which has its armies and lobbyists and nonprofits and terrorist organizations and corporations, along with its politicians, broadcasters and soccer teams.

In terms expressed by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, rather than being ideologies, these are global “desiring machines,” a reference to the will to power – the strong desire to give expression to power. Such groups are composed of a changing set of components, but because they are almost devoid of a political dimension, these networks are not rigid and the players involved can unashamedly jump from one faction to another.

Purportedly, against the backdrop of such a fractured political landscape, ethical human beings would need to hold onto lofty ideals. Values such as human rights and social justice should serve as a kind of moral compass that can guide us in an era of such tectonic shifts. Any sober observer would see that moral values themselves have been set by a changing constellation of forces. Today’s values are not the same as those in the past or future.

And here’s some breaking news. While leading the world to the brink of nuclear war with the ruler of North Korea, Donald Trump, when asked about the prospect that he and Kim Jong-un could be friends, responded: “Strange things happen in life. That might be a strange thing that happens. But it is certainly a possibility.”

At least Trump seems to be correct that strange things happen in life.

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