“We Jews have a secret weapon in our struggle with the Arabs; we have no place to go.” These words of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir ring true today when one looks at a map of the Arab countries quite literally surrounding Israel. But perhaps this desperation indicates a willingness to collaborate in ways antithetical to what would typically be expected of Israel. From this ever-present threat of existential defeat comes strategic collaboration.
In recent years Israel has placed a great emphasis on showcasing to the world the hostile factions that threaten Israel’s existence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations General Assembly in 2012 used a diagram showing a cartoon bomb to represent the Iranian nuclear program. In front of well over 100 heads of state he used a red magic marker to draw an actual red line on the image of the bomb to illustrate Israel’s “red line”, the point after which Israel will no longer tolerate Iran’s buildup of nuclear capabilities. Israel has fought two wars with Hamas in Gaza in the past two years, and it has pleaded with the world to take its side against Islamists. Oddly enough, the nations whose interests often align with Israel’s are Arab states. Israel has found Egypt on its side in the face of threats from Hamas, the Palestinian arm of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and it has found its interests lining up with Saudi Arabia in response to a nuclear threat from Iran. It has been widely reported that Israel has been teaming up with Arab nations in the face of these threats.
But regarding Saudi Arabia, these common interests do not at all translate to a relationship, in contrast to some common thought. Tamara Wittes, the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, asserted to me the importance of making this distinction. “A shared set of interests on some of these regional issues [is] not the same thing as a relationship or partnership,” explains Wittes. This is immediately evident in the political ideologies of the two countries. Wittes claims that Saudi Arabia “would be uninterested in pursuing a relationship with Israel without significant change in Israel’s policy on the issue of the Palestinians.” Saudi Arabia’s government is a vocal supporter of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API), which outlined a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it stands little chance of ever being endorsed by the Israelis, since the API calls for Israel to revert back to its borders from before the 1967 war, thus calling on Israel to give up the West Bank and the Golan Heights and allow a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Israel is unlikely to ever agree to this, thereby limiting any possibility for an actual alliance with Saudi Arabia.
This is not to say that the two countries do not “cooperate tacitly,” in the words of Wittes. This sentiment is echoed by Congressman Joe Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who serves on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, a branch of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “All of these relationships have layers: the public one…and a number of additional layers,” Kennedy told me. “There is a recognition at the moment that the region is under a great amount of turmoil,” Kennedy notes. “Saudi Arabia and Israel have [shared] interests”, which include halting Iran’s nuclear program, limiting Iran in its support to regional terror groups, and weakening Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas influence in the region.
The history between Israel and Saudi Arabia is not long or public; in fact, there are no diplomatic ties between the two countries. “It’s not like if ISIS attacks Israel, Saudi Arabia will defend it, or if ISIS attacks Saudi Arabia, Israel will defend it,” Yasmine Farouk points out. But Farouk, an Egyptian political scientist currently at Yale on a Fulbright scholarship, argues that “the Saudis are more pragmatic than everybody thinks that they are; they just do it discretely.” Its shared interests with Israel exemplify this. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia place the Iranian nuclear threat far above the conflict with the Palestinians in terms of urgency and danger. Cooperation on this front is crucial to both countries, far more crucial than resolving political or diplomatic standoffs. “The nature of diplomacy,” says Kennedy, “is to figure out the common ground most effectively.”
But both the Israelis and the Saudis are imminently aware how radically the power dynamic in the Middle East would shift if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon. Israel and Saudi Arabia both count America as an ally, but these alliances would be much less useful if the Iranian government could use a nuclear bomb as leverage over America. Implicit collaboration between Israel and Saudi Arabia is at a unique point in history, but any kind of alliance between these nations would be extremely unexpected.
Israel is involved with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but to try to somehow link Israel’s dealings with the two countries would be almost impossible. In stark contrast to the cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia is Israel’s relationship with Egypt. The two countries are not allies, but the peace treaty they signed at Camp David in 1979 still has a powerful hold on both Israel and Egypt. “The peace treaty is an anchor for both states,” says Wittes. But another factor is at play here. Farouk calls this relationship “trilateral”: without America, the relationship’s strength (and perhaps even its existence) would be diminished. Egypt needs the support of the United States, and as such Egypt recognizes the strategic wisdom in maintaining the ties with Israel it established in 1979. These ties were seen as stable until 2011, because for most of those 32 years Egypt had one leader: President Hosni Mubarak, a military dictator, albeit a dictator on whom Israel and America could rely.
In the 2011 Arab Spring, Egyptian protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square achieved the ouster of President Mubarak. “This was a very anxious period for Israel,” Wittes observes, as the ruling of Egypt was unpredictable and moving through phases. Farouk describes three phases of governance in Egypt from 2011 until now. In the first phase, the military ruled Egypt, but they did not maintain a strong Egyptian presence in the Middle East. The second phase saw the ascendancy of Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood to the presidency, where he held power from June 2012 to July 2013. This, too, was an especially anxious time for Israel, since “the Muslim Brotherhood is traditionally hostile to Israel”, says Wittes. Both Farouk and Wittes agree that Morsi was quick to reassert Egypt’s commitment to peace with Israel; he needed “support from the U.S. to boost legitimacy at home,” argues Farouk. Morsi cooperated with Hamas, but he did not stray from his promise to retain peace with Israel. And the current phase is the leadership of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a military leader. His primary goal has been to fight Islamic extremism, so here Egyptian interests align with those of Israel.
Egyptian and Israeli military are in close contact regarding threats on their shared border. Jihadi groups are especially prevalent in the Sinai Peninsula, so cooperation on this front is imperative. Intelligence is also shared about Hamas activity in Gaza and Muslim Brotherhood activity in Egypt. In the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza this past summer, Egypt essentially stood with Israel (though it did not say so explicitly) in siding against Hamas. But Egypt even went a step further, argues Wittes. “Some in Egypt saw this as an opportunity to reduce Hamas’s ability to make trouble in the region,” while those in Israel mostly just wanted “a quiet for quiet arrangement with Hamas,” Wittes posits. We see this in how Sisi pushed to enforce tough ceasefire conditions on Hamas; in fact, “tougher…than previous Egyptian governments,” Wittes reminds us.
But similarly to Saudi Arabia, do not anticipate Israel and Egypt emerging as a united front on the international stage. Israel and Egypt currently have ambassadors in the other country, but this was not always the case during the past 35 years. Threats evolve, and so do the countries that aim to destroy them. Frankly, Egypt works with Israel because it has to if it is to maintain a strong relationship with America. And Saudi Arabia cooperates with Israel for intrinsically egocentric reasons: It doesn’t want to lose its stance as the dominant Arab nation in the region. For now, these countries cooperate with each other because it serves them well in their own right. Kennedy points out that “existing doors close and new ones open.” The timing may be right at the moment, but don’t be on the lookout for a handshake between King Abdullah and Prime Minister Netanyahu.