Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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The Saudis and Israel

by Elliott Abrams
June 5, 2015


Two new developments may suggest an opening in relations between Israel and the Gulf states.

The first is a new survey of public opinion in Saudi Arabia, conducted by telephone–from Israel, by students at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Result:

The poll found that 53 percent of Saudis named Iran as their main adversary, while 22 percent said it is the Islamic State group and only 18 percent said Israel….A whopping 85 percent also support the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for peace with Israel in return for a full Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders.

These results should not exaggerated: though only 18 percent may consider Israel ┬átheir country’s main adversary, a far higher number may hate Israel and Jews. Nevertheless, to support the Arab Peace Initiative, launched by the late King Abdallah in 2002, is to acknowledge that peace with the Jewish State is imaginable–including with normal diplomatic relations.

The second development is a session I chaired at the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday, June 4th. Two speakers shared the podium: Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Anwar Eshki of Saudi Arabia, and Amb. Dore Gold of Israel. The two men revealed that they had been in discussion for a year secretly, and had now decided to go public about their talks. Their speeches focused on the same issue: the danger to both their countries posed by Iran.

The session received a good deal of publicity (see The New York Times, for example), and rightly so. It’s true that neither man is a government official, although Amb. Gold will be one next week: he will become Director General of Israel’s foreign ministry. But both men have long public careers and neither would have participated in their discussions and then made them public without a nod from their governments.

Again, let’s avoid exaggeration–but let’s also acknowledge that this is a rare event and a positive development. Iran gets most of the credit, because alarm about Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its hegemonic activities in the Middle East have spread widely in the Middle East. But some credit must be shared by the ayatollahs with President Obama, whose refusal to confront Iran has moved Saudis, Israelis, and others in the region to think about where they might find new friends.

There’s no Saudi-Israeli alliance or friendship today, nor will there be one tomorrow. But a wise American policy would seek quietly to explore and to expand these first seedlings of contact. I doubt that the Obama administration can do that, because its failings are in no small part what brings Israelis and Arab states to talk in the first place. Our next president, however, should make it a priority to see if the ice can be cracked a bit more.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Yuval

    Two notes: one, please remember the Saudi initiative calls for a solution to the refugee problem within Israel’s borders. Two, back when the nine-month settlement freeze ended and Obama was looking for a way to convince Netanyahu to continue, he approached the Saudis in hopes of getting a modest gain in return: opening Saudi airspace to Israeli commercial flights. They refused.

  • Posted by Ian Azizollahoff

    i’m not so sure there won’t be a Saudi-Israeli alliance ‘tomorrow’. Israel has a lit of what SA needs – technology and particularly the area of defense.

  • Posted by Jassem Othman

    Dear Messrs. Abrams, General Eshki and Ambassador Gold. Thank you for your great efforts in the service of humanity and peace, especially in that region , which is suffering conflicts. Thank you for the planting of these wonderful seedlings of contact between the Kingdom and Israel in this great organization (CFR). and above all to Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, who is a brave and brilliant man, and a great friend of the US who remains something special and unique, both in his qualities.
    The truth is that the Saudi government have always been a good strategic ally and an important partner of the United States for almost about 70 years. Yes despite a stark clash in values, but they are the closest and sincere “Arab” ally of the United States in the Middle East. But the futile alliance between the Saud family and the hardline intolerant Wahhabis, have played an very negative impact on the country’s reputation locally and internationally. They themselves have become suffering these bad consequences that brought by those puritanical religious leaders who have become intervene in every aspect of daily Saudi life. Yet, after all what the Saudi government did in the service of Islam and Muslims, comes a handful of their sect or their followers accusing the Saudi rulers as outside of sharia and being hostile to Muslims.
    In any case, those governments must put an end to this repulsive Wahhabi element, to these people and their barbarism. That government should start follow a strict and courageous policy to put an end of the extreme Muslim fundamentalism. It is difficult, but nothing is impossible, only those governments are the key cofactor so that can reach this goal, they alone can not fight this great evil, in this case, they need very strong support from the West. So I think the protection of the Saudi government and the rest of Arab governments in the Persian Gulf and also Gen. Sisi’s new military government in Egypt and to provide security there should be an important priority of the priorities of the United States foreign policy and the West in general, especially since it began in Saudi Arabia, a new era of substantial change in the governance structure in the kingdom, with the emergence of a new and powerful and witty generation of the Royal family and citizens, who are able to run the country wisely and wittily, and able to build new relationships, new friendships and new hopes of serious changes to bring the country into a respectable status and a good reputation around the world.

    Israel is a tiny country, a small nation – with no natural resources and with no raw materials, but it is considered an developed and prosperous country in terms of “economy, technology, and living standards”. Israel today is industrialized country, which ranked among the world’s leaders in the field of technology and scientific progress. Add to this, Militarily, it is a very strong country. Israelis have the most powerful military capabilities in the Middle East, and though, they do not use it as a force of threat and intimidation against their enemies or their neighbors. Though, their enemies continuously warns them, do threaten to destroy that country and to wipe it off the map, although they are able to wipe a countries off the face of the Earth and within a minutes. This is a stark fact, not a fable.
    Today the common enemy for both countries, and for the region and even for the entire world, is: Terrorism and terrorist organizations that came from Islamic fundamentalism in its sects (Sunni and Shiite) including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the mullahs’ nuclear expansionist regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. The world should band together to wipe this evil and its allies off the face of the Earth! today (the Israelis and the Saudis) are at the forefront of the fight against this great evil, they did much better in the region than Mr. Obama’s admin when it comes to fighting the terror. It’s great thing. This alliance of course is considered as good signal of geopolitical power to these two very important countries in the region.
    I think that the rest of Arabs should take the opportunity and to overcome the historic animosities and build good friendship relations with the State of Israel because certainly it is much better than heading to the most racist nations in central and eastern of Europe. Israel is above all an neighbor country. Second- it is a very developed and successful country. This convergence in the end it is in the interests of Arab nations. It is a legitimate right to doing reconciliation with them, for instance, in 1994, the Grand mufti of Saudi Arabia has been permitted to make policy of reconciliation with the Jewish State, among the things, the exchange of ambassadors, if it was in the national interest of a Muslim leader.

    It is essential that we learn from these civilized and developed nations, which have become an important part of the civilized world, at least from Israelis and Asians. For example, Singapore today is considered as a developed and modern prosperous country, ranked as one of the largest economies in the World although has no natural resources. Singapore, Japan, S. Korea, Thailand, are considered to be the most developed and reputable Asian country in Asia. Anyway, if you want to become a developed and respectable locally and internationally, you must first put in the work to make your country and your society, above all, a modern and secular societies, and make them very strong “educationally, economically, politically and morally.” These are not minor matters, yes people are the obstacle, but nothing is impossible. In order to keep up with the civilized world, those nations must change the nature of their behavior and thinking to cope with the civilized world, is above all “the governments and the people” must get rid of the grip of religious extremism and extreme nationalism. So, as a result of negative and positive changes and developments, which are occurring in the region in particular and the world in general, and in order to accomplish a lot of lofty and noble goals in the kingdom, I think it is very necessary the Royal family to begin to form an strong and deep alliance with currents that are calling for Secularization and Modernity. And it is very necessary to build and to strengthening ties between the Arab States of Persian Gulf and Israel in education and exchanges, science and technology, trade and investment, entrepreneurship, and security. God bless!

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