By supporting the Saudi kingdom with military aid and intelligence cooperation, while ignoring the regime’s human rights abuses and support for terror organizations, Israel and the U.S. risk repeating the Cold War era’s worst mistakes.
By Eitay Mack (translated by Ofer Neiman and Tal Haran)
Israel and Saudi Arabia have been close partners with the American political and economic elite for several decades. In recent years, their parallel relationships with the U.S. have become a close triangular relationship. Israel and Saudi Arabia promote their mutual interests in the Middle East and, it seems, maintain intelligence ties, the details of which remain secret. Even if Israel is not selling weapons to Saudi Arabia or providing intelligence support, there is no doubt that Israel has given the United States the green light to massively arm the Saudi kingdom.
Dramatic political changes have been reflected in recent reports of ongoing communication between Israel and Saudi Arabia: calls by senior Israeli officials for full normalization of relations between the two counties; repeated statements by Netanyahu that Israel has shared interests with the Gulf States in the fight against Iran and ISIS, especially with Saudi Arabia, which sees Israel as a partner, not an enemy; and an exceptional interview that Commander-in-Chief of the army Gadi Eizenkott gave to a Saudi news site, in which he praised the partnership between Israel and Saudi Arabia, at least in their joint struggle against Iran, and announced that Israel is willing “to share intelligence with the moderate Arab states.”
Israel is looking reap three major benefits from its relationship with Saudi Arabia: the creation of a united, regional front against Iran and its proxies, influence over events in Syria, and reduced support for the Palestinian independence struggle. Israel knows that one of the Palestinians’ last cards is normalization. As in the case of African states—which severed official diplomatic ties with Israel in 1973 but continued to purchase Israeli weapons exports, directly and indirectly—the question of normalization with the Arab nations has increasingly become a symbolic rather than practical question. Today, a good number of Arab countries maintain commercial, diplomatic, and even security-oriented ties with Israel behind the scenes.
A doomed triangular affair
Netanyahu and Trump applauded the announcement by the Saudi crown prince and defense minister, Mohammed Bin Salman, that Ayatollah Khomeini is “the new Hitler in the Middle East,” as well as Salman’s remarks against Hezbollah. However, it the Israel-Saudi-U.S. triangle has largely failed to achieve its goals: Iraq is quickly becoming an Iranian proxy; the Assad regime, supported by Iran and Russia, is winning the Syrian civil war, which will strengthen Hezbollah, whose soldiers will soon return to Lebanon as heroes; similar to America and Saudi Arabia’s support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Syrian militias armed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to fight the Assad regime and ISIS won’t part with their weapons anytime soon, and chances are they will be used against Israel in the future; even if the ISIS caliphate physically disappears, it will remain alive as an ideology amongst its militants and supporters; and the Palestinian question is unlikely to disappear from the international agenda any time soon. A declaration of full normalization of relations with Israel by an Arab regime prior to the resolution of the Palestinian issue would constitute political suicide.
The failure to realize these goals stems not only from the complicated reality in the Middle East, but also from the fact that the tripartite partnership between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States is inherently incapable of achieving them.
First, it is impossible to ignore American and Israeli contributions to radicalization in the Middle East: the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon; and especially the decades-long U.S. support for Arab dictatorships (for example, of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, prior to 1989). These regimes squandered their countries resources, leaving their citizens in severe poverty or far behind a narrow caste of ruling elites, and carried out harsh internal repression.
Second, it is impossible to combat the process of radicalization in Muslim countries and communities around the world while ignoring the tremendous Saudi financial support for terrorist organizations and an extremist, ultra-conservative form of Islam, from Europe to Indonesia. For years, Saudi Arabia support for Al-Qaeda has been known, all while the regime claimed that at most it was private Saudi citizens who were funding the terror organization and others like it. Even if this is true, it does not explain why the dictatorial Saudi regime, which monitors its citizens so closely, has failed to halt the financial flow. Recent reports revealed that the British government is keeping hidden a report on the Saudi contribution to radicalization to avoid damaging economic and strategic relations between the two states.
Last June, Saudi Arabia declared its boycott of the Qatari dictatorship because of the latter’s relations with Iran and its support for terrorism. The boycott failed. Kuwait and Oman refused to join it from the outset, and Qatar – refusing to give up its relations with Iran – strengthened its ties with Turkey. It now seems that Saudi Arabia is facing an additional military defeat in its war in Yemen against the Houthi rebels, who boast of Iranian support, though clearly this military link is not as tight as Iran’s link to Hezbollah.
The war in Yemen has now entered its third year. Saudi Arabia has been unable to defeat the Houthis, despite purchasing sophisticated weapons systems worth billions of dollars from the U.S. and Britain. The murderous war does entail war crimes on both sides, but most of have been committed by the coalition of Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia. The Sunni coalition, armed by the U.S. and Europe, attacks and bombs hospitals and civilians, lays siege to the state’s ports, and blocks the transfer of basic humanitarian aid. According to partial UN data, so far at least 10,000 civilians have been killed and tens of thousands wounded. Millions lack badly needed medical services, access to clean water, and minimal nutrition. About 700,000 cases of cholera have been documented.
Saudi Arabia invests a fortune in the war in Yemen each day, even though its economy is faltering. Low oil prices can no longer subsidize the profligate habits of thousands of members of the Saudi royal family or contain the corruption that has infested every echelon of the Saudi regime and bureaucracy. Thanks to support from the U.S. and Britain, permanent members of the UN Security Council, the international community is paralyzed from doing anything to stop the war in Yemen. No political solution to this crisis is in sight, though the war clearly has no military solution. The Saudi crown-prince, Bin Salman, knows that ending this war without a Saudi military victory could be the end of his personal career; he has led this war since being appointed as Minister of Defense in 2015.
Instead of facing this reality, Netanyahu and the Trump administration have fallen in love with the Saudi crown-prince, and are especially enamored with his expressed hatred of Iran and his proposed initiatives to modernize the state – such as allowing women to drive, diversifying the economy and reducing its dependence on oil profits, and a campaign to fight corruption that included removing political rivals, present and future.
We seem to be watching the Saudi spin-off series of prior episodes of military and political aid handed by the U.S., Britain and Israel to the Iranian Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – who was also marketed as progressive and pro-Western to justify such support. During the Shah’s corrupt rule, tens of thousands were tortured, thousands were executed or disappeared, and protesters were shot. Severe political oppression was one of the main reasons for Ayatollahs’ rise to power in Iran in 1979.
As for the Saudi dictatorship, in addition to its responsibility for the murderous war in Yemen and its support for international terrorist organizations, the kingdom exercises extremely harsh political and gender oppression. The Saudi regime is an absolute monarchy. The law bans political parties. The state has never held elections, except for a few municipal elections. Its security forces routinely carry out arbitrary torture and arrests. Women need the approval of their male guardian to go to work, travel in and out of the country, open a bank account, and undergo medical treatment. The courts of law are not independent. Corruption is rampant.
Netanyahu and the Trump administration, then, disingenuously distinguish between the Iranian dictatorship (which they fight and vehemently denounce) and the Saudi dictatorship (whose misdeeds the U.S. and Israel are willing to live with, or at least ignore). Both Iran and Saudi Arabia interfere with other states and are linked to militias and terrorist groups. History repeats itself.
The distinction between Iran and Saudi Arabia resembles the neo-conservative American distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes during the Cold War. According to that doctrine, as articulated by one of its prominent supporters — Ambassador to the UN under the Reagan administration, Jeane Kirkpatrick — authoritarian regimes were less oppressive and severe and were thus open to democratic change, whereas totalitarian regimes, with their total control of all aspects of life, presented no possibility of change at all. In fact, the doctrine was meant to categorize the U.S.-backed murderous dictatorships (such as the Latin American juntas) as authoritarian, and thus justify U.S. support, while distinguishing them from the totalitarian regimes of the USSR and its satellites.
Netanyahu and the Israeli security establishment have not learned from past mistakes. They did not not try to limit the U.S. arming of Saudi Arabia, nor have they lifted finger to halt Saudi support for radicalization and worldwide terrorism. Quite the contrary, they have offered political backing and legitimization to the Saudi crown-prince and his dangerous adventures throughout the Middle East.
Theirs is a mistaken gamble. Considering the failed Saudi campaign in Yemen, in addition to Iran’s successful involvement in Syria and Iraq, the faltering Saudi economy, and internal power struggles at the top of the Saudi regime, chances are that Prince Bin Salman will soon fall. The Saudi royal family now faces a harsh test, perhaps the harshest ever. Saudi Arabia might have skipped the Arab Spring, but it is not at all certain to survive Prince Bin Salman’s arrogant behavior.
In the meantime, Israeli media mostly repeats messages issued by the Prime Minister’s office about the warming relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as the other Gulf states. Only rarely do they report on the war in Yemen, Saudi corruption or Saudi contributions to terrorist organizations. The Israeli public, unaware of such information, is mostly glad to place some more obstacles before the Palestinians’ struggle for independence; it might wake up only once missiles begin flying from Saudi Arabia towards Eilat. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this this before.
Eitay Mack is an Israeli human rights lawyer working to stop Israeli military aid to regimes that commit war crimes and crimes against humanity. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.