Recent remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have fueled renewed speculation of behind-the-scenes links between Israel and the Gulf monarchies.
Netanyahu, speaking at the UN, said that “the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran and the emergence of other threats in our region have led many of our Arab neighbors to recognize, finally recognize, that Israel is not their enemy.”
He added: “This affords us the opportunity to overcome the historic animosities and build new relationships, new friendships, new hopes.”
There have been subsequent rumors of visits by senior Gulf officials to Israel, to discuss matters of common interest.
While it is difficult to acquire details of these contacts at the present time, it is a near certainty that they exist, on one level or another. Conversations with Israeli officials suggest that much is happening behind the scenes.
Israel and the key states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (most importantly, Saudi Arabia) share core views on the nature of key regional processes currently underway, and their desired outcome. These commonalities have existed for some time, and it is likely that the contacts are themselves not all that new.
There are three areas in which Israel and the countries of the GCC (with the exception of Qatar) are on the same page.
They are: the urgency of the threat represented by the prospect of a nuclear Iran, the danger represented by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood over the last two years, and the perception that the United States fails to understand the urgency of these threats and, as a result, is acting in a naive and erroneous way on both.
On the Iranian nuclear issue, Riyadh is deeply troubled by the current Iranian ‘charm offensive’ and its apparent effects on the west. Most importantly, the Saudis fear the prospect of a nuclear Iran, which could force Riyadh and the Gulf states to bend to its will, in return for guaranteeing the flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz, and avoiding direct encroachment on their sources of energy.
Saudi Arabia faces Iran, directly across the Gulf. It is a far more fragile construction than its Shia, Persian neighbor. Over the decades, Riyadh and the other Gulf states sought to balance Iranian encroachment of this type through alliance with the U.S.
But the U.S. no longer seems such a reliable ally. So new strong and like-minded friends are needed.
On the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudis feared the spread of this movement across the region, and were infuriated by the role of Qatar in supporting its successes in recent years.
Israel, too, was deeply concerned at the prospect of a new alliance of Sunni Islamist states, with AKP-led Turkey and Morsi’s Egypt chief among them.
Over the past year, the advance of the Muslim Brothers has been halted and partially reversed. In Tunisia and Egypt, the MB administrations have gone. Qatar has a new, less activist emir. The Muslim Brothers and Qatar have grown weaker among the Syrian rebels.
Saudi Arabia has been responsible for some of this, through financial support and political action. It has welcomed all of it. So has Israel.