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Behind the Extravagant Hype of an Israeli-Saudi 'Courtship', Israel Is Setting the Price for Riyadh to Go Nuclear

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Sign for one of about 18,000 fallout shelters set up in U.S. cities in the early 1960s amid the nuclear arms race. East 9th Street, New York. Jan. 16, 2018
Sign for one of about 18,000 fallout shelters set up in U.S. cities in the early 1960s amid the nuclear arms race. East 9th Street, New York. Jan. 16, 2018Credit: Mary Altaffer/AP

What is the true state of Israel’s relations with Saudi Arabia? How much of the more expansive claims about warming ties exaggeration, even disinformation - and who's pushing it? And what if the real stumbling block between the two countries isn't just the Palestinian issue - but something even more explosive?

The coverage of Israel’s "budding" relationship with Saudi Arabia, now a constant stream, hasn't lost its power to surprise. Most recently, it was suggested one key element of the Arab boycott of Israel was potentially on its way out, when reports emerged that flights to and from Israel by Air India, and perhaps even El Al, may be allowed to fly over Saudi airspace, despite a pro-forma denial from Saudi Arabia’s Civil Aviation Authority.

Before that, there was the story about a purported secret visit to Israel by a Saudi prince; a public meeting at a New York City synagogue between Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud, formerly director of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service, and Efraim Halevy, formerly director of the Mossad; an exclusive interview given by Israel’s chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot to the privately owned Saudi newspaper Elaph.

Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud of Saudi Arabia at the Clinton Global Initiative 2012. New York, September 25, 2012Credit: \ Andrew Burton/ REUTERS

What are we to make of all these stories and why are they being published now?

What seems incontrovertible is that there is indeed a warming of relations between Israel and some Gulf states; there are business ties; Saudi bloggers who express admiration for Israel, once taboo, are tolerated.

Yet many of the more extensive "bromance" rumors are at best speculative, and they certainly do not mean that Israel and Saudi Arabia are on the verge of establishing diplomatic relations.

On the surface, the same central obstacle remains: Israel’s unresolved dispute with the Palestinians.

Prince Turki has made it plain – including in the Haaretz op-ed he wrote  in 2014 – that Israel would have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians based on the Arab Peace Initiative before diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia can be established.

This position has been serially repeated by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, including in an interview he gave FRANCE 24 last December, when he stated that the idea there was any other path to normalization with Israel was "just nonsense."

Palestinian protesters run amid the smoke during clashes with Israeli forces near the border with Israel east of Gaza city. February 9, 2018Credit: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

Prince Turki published an article in Arabic and in English sharply criticizing President Trump for unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The Saudi Royal Court published a statement as soon as the announcement was made condemning it in absolute terms. Saudi Arabia voted in favor of resolutions condemning that recognition at the Arab League, at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and at the UN.

It is often said that Israel and Saudi Arabia have a mutual interest in containing Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region, and that, along with an energetic new crown prince, fear of Iranian hegemony is fuelling Saudi-Israel ties.

Indeed, Israel's chief of staff has volunteered that Israel was "ready to exchange experiences with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries and exchange intelligence information to confront Iran."

But it would be worth retaining some scepticism as to some of these stories' 'natural' conclusion - an incipient Israeli-Saudi alliance - not least when many originate (primarily) in Israel, Iran, and Qatar, by media conglomerates owned by Qatar and Iran,or by businessmen with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Take the Iran and Qatar sources first: It isn't surprising that those countries, with whom Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations and are regularly described as "enemies" in the Saudi media, would want to undermine Saudi Arabia’s standing in the Arab world by publishing stories that Riyadh is "collaborating" with Israel to undermine the Palestinian cause. 

That sourcing might explain why veteran Saudi observers aren't buying the bromance narrative. Following the reports about Saudi airspace opening to Israel flights, Saudi columnist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed explained that there was "no political logic in preventing the world’s civilian aircraft from crossing Saudi airspace, with the exception of three countries – Israel, Qatar, and Iran."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem. February 11, 2018Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/AFP

And what is Israel's interest in boosting the narrative? It seems very possible that Israel has a greater interest than Saudi Arabia in forging close relations to contain Iran, and is exaggerating the extent of its relationship with Riyadh.

That exaggeration is intended to boost Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ongoing efforts to turn the API on its head – so that Israel would gain regional recognition before any negotiations with the Palestinians take place. As one Israeli commentator put it, Netanyahu hopes "Israel’s nascent rapprochement with certain Sunni Arab states could eventually lead to those states pressur[ing] the Palestinians into the concessions required to reach a peace deal."

However, a shared interest in containing Iran, and the Palestinian issue, doesn’t tell the whole story of the push-pull relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The real stumbling block between the two countries isn't just the Palestinian issue. The elephant in the relationship, which is far less often mentioned, is Saudi Arabia's pursuit of nuclear power.

Israel is currently fighting a political battle in Washington to stop the U.S. from letting Riyadh develop its own nuclear energy program that would allow it to enrich uranium that could be used to develop a bomb.

Israel has good reason to be concerned. According to reports, the Trump administration might be willing to lower certain safeguards that prevent U.S. companies from sharing sensitive nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia for fear that it might be used to develop weapons. This administration might not insist on the same precautions that Obama did in its nuclear cooperation agreement with Abu Dhabi, for example, which forfeited its right to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium.

Hassan Rouhani, Iran's president, at a news conference to mark the 39th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran. Feb. 6, 2018Credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP

In its negotiations with the U.S., Saudi Arabia is not backing down from its demand to enrich uranium under its planned civilian nuclear program – using, ironically, as its rationale, the conditions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in which Iran has been allowed to enrich uranium. Prince Turki has made it clear, more than once, that should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries would look at all available options to meet the potential threat, including the acquisition of nuclear weapons. 

The only snag for Saudi Arabia is the U.S. Congress, because this is where Israel has influential friends. Even if a deal is reached between Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration, Congress could either block the deal or add clauses preventing the U.S. from selling Saudi Arabia technology needed to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium. 

It is more than possible that through its media campaign, Israel is sending a signal to Riyadh that it understands very well Saudi Arabia's desire for a nuclear deterrent regarding Iran - but there's a price to be paid for Israel reducing the level of its direct and indirect opposition in Congress to an independent Saudi nuclear capability.

What Israel appears to be saying to Saudi Arabia, via a variety of trial balloons, is that if Riyadh wants Israel’s help with obtaining support from Congress, then Israel wants something in return: Jerusalem, overflight rights for Israeli aircraft, direct military cooperation and intelligence exchanges, lucrative business deals for Israeli companies in Saudi Arabia, and so on.

The publication of stories about Israel’s ever-closer relationship with Saudi Arabia, which are then magnified by media conglomerates in Qatar and Iran, is certainly one way of ensuring that the messages are received loud and clear.

Saudi Arabia would likely have anticipated that Congress could give them trouble as it has done before. 

But this time things might be different - and these changes might scupper Israel's strategy.

President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington D.C. March 14, 2017Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

A deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia could aid the ailing U.S. nuclear industry and have wider benefits for corporate America. Moreover, the U.S. does not have a monopoly on nuclear technology.

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has already visited Moscow and signed agreements with Russia to build 16 nuclear reactors by 2030. Saudi Arabia already has nuclear related understandings with China, France, Pakistan, South Korea, and Argentina. One expert has even suggested that Pakistan could assist Saudi Arabia by supplying Riyadh with sensitive equipment, materials, and the expertise that would aid Riyadh with enrichment or processing.

Riyadh is also expanding research at the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy and developing a cadre of nuclear scientists. Saudi Arabia is home to large uranium deposits that could be extracted with the appropriate technology.

Obviously, Riyadh would prefer Washington’s blessing and support in developing its nuclear energy program within the rules of the global nonproliferation treaty rather than having to develop the program clandestinely with the aid of other states. Israel senses this, and would be willing to help Riyadh, but has set the price high.

Israel would far prefer a covert alliance with Saudi Arabia to contain Iran over the U.S. allowing Riyadh to develop an independent nuclear deterrent. But Jerusalem is working to prepare for both eventualities. Whether that strategy will work remains to be seen.

But should the Iran deal blow up on Trump's watch, and Tehran acquires the capability to develop a weapon, no one should underestimate Riyadh’s resolve for self-preservation.

Victor Kattan is Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore and an Associate Fellow at the Faculty of Law. Twitter: @VictorKattan