An Israeli-Saudi Strategic Understanding
The bipartisan acclaim Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu won from a joint House meeting in Washington Tuesday May 24 (about which an American columnist wrote: “After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s masterful speech before Congress, President Obama is the odd man out in Washington when it comes to the Middle East”) was just one weapon in the Israeli leader’s armory. The other one, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal, is a series of secret understandings he has forged with the “young” Saudi princes assigned by King Abdullah in recent months to manage the oil kingdom’s foreign and security affairs.
Saudi Arabia and Israel have been cooperating quietly on issues of shared interest for three years starting in the days of Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert. But the basis of understanding has broadened and strengthened in the four months since the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the falling-out between Abdullah and President Barack Obama over the latter’s Middle East policy.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 493 of May 20: Saudis: No More Oil Trade for US Security Shield.)
When the Israeli prime minister met Obama at the White House Friday, May 20, the day after the US president unveiled his Middle East vision which Israel sharply criticized, he made no secret of the relationship he had set in motion with Riyadh and even suggested that it might be a useful anchor for Washington’s policy in the region and its approach to the Palestinian question.
Netanyahu let it be understood that his own Palestinian steps had been coordinated with the Saudis and through them with the GCC Gulf emirates and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Israel holds strongly to its military option against Iran
It was the Israeli leader’s first visit to the White House after the Israel-Turkish strategic alliance fell apart in May 2010 and Israel’s key Arab ally Mubarak was overthrown in Cairo. But because he came with a new Arab strategic partner, Saudi Arabia, he was not empty-handed.
This new connection also gave Netanyahu the chance to disavow any impression of Israel scrapping its military option for preventing Iran attaining a nuclear bomb, an impression generated recently by such public comments as Defense Minister Ehud Barak‘s “Iran is unlikely to bomb Israel in the event of it obtaining a nuclear weapon” and the view voiced by former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, “…an air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a stupid idea that offers no advantage.”
The prime minister was very clear about this at the White House: Not only has Israel not abandoned this option, but it is determined to exercise it with Saudi assistance – in lieu of the United States if need be.
This determination was reflected in his words to Congress: “The more Iran believes that all options are on the table, the less the chance of confrontation,” he said. “This is why I ask you to continue to send an unequivocal message: American will never permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
“As for Israel, if history has taught the Jewish people anything, it is that we must take calls for our destruction seriously. We are a nation that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust. When we say never again, we mean never again. Israel always reserves the right to defend itself.”
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, the accords Israel has reached with the Saudis do not constitute a formal pact or treaty but rather a row of strategic understandings hammered out in fairly regular, unpublicized encounters between Israeli and Saudi intelligence chiefs at which Netanyahu too has put in an appearance.
Intelligence give-and-take expanded to imperiled Arab capitals
Mossad Director Tamir Pardo takes his seat opposite the Director of Saudi General Intelligence Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz or Chairman of the Saudi National Security Council Prince Bandar bin Sultan – or sometimes both. Their discussions are described by Israel and Saudi sources as down-to-earth with no time wasted on rhetoric or political palaver.
The two parties raise issues of concern, swap intelligence and get down to the hard tacks of ways and means and solutions. When the issues are within the remit of the officials present, the agreed steps can be put into practice without delay or red tape. When higher authority is required for implementation, decisions are referred to King Abdullah in Riyadh and Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
These exchanges are kept under close wraps by both sides.
Until recently, they focused mostly on the perils posed by Iran’s military and nuclear impetus and expansionist activities. In the six months since the Arab Revolt began engulfing the region, the agenda has broadened to steps arising from shared intelligence covering the Arab capitals challenged by popular uprisings and revolts.
Today, bilateral strategic cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia encompasses:
Iran: Insights on its domestic currents and the balance of power within the regime, the army and the Revolutionary Guards Corps;
Iraq: Having expanded its undercover operations there, the Saudis welcome any input – provided it does not come from American or domestic sources. They now rely heavily on their own sources, contributions from Jordan’s clandestine informants in the country and on Israel’s undercover presence in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Loss of Egypt left Saudi and Israeli intelligence dangling
Egypt. Until Mubarak’s downfall on February 11, Saudi Arabia was well served by a direct telephone line between King Abdullah and the Egyptian president, who kept his intelligence chiefs on call for any summons from Riyadh to fly over and brief the monarch and Prince Muqrin.
Mubarak had frequent conversations with Israeli leaders and his intelligence minister was a familiar face in Jerusalem.
However, the military rulers now installed in Cairo headed by Field Marshal Mohammad Tantawi have drawn aloof from both. They are especially wary of any policy tie-in between Cairo and Riyadh.
And so a major source of Saudi intelligence has dried up.
Western intelligence sources comment that only four months ago, no one in the Middle East would have imagined Saudi and Israeli clandestine services working together on surveillance in Egypt the way they are today.
The arcane workings of this give-and-take relationship surfaced partially this week in a couple of apparently unrelated Middle East occurrences.
Last week, we reported that Jordan’s King Abdullah II had accepted an invitation to join the Gulf emirates association, the Gulf Council of Cooperation. Since then things have moved fast and, notably, Lt. Gen. Mohammad Al Raqqad, Director of the Jordanian General Intelligence Dept. – GID, was told to pitch in with the Israeli-Saudi intelligence partnership. He came armed with the strong ties he already maintains with his Israel counterparts.
Sunday, May 22, the Hashemite king, after conferring with Riyadh, turned down a request by the Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas for an audience, telling his aides not to accept any more calls from this frequent visitor.
Abbas was bitterly disappointed; he had hoped for a briefing on the king’s White House talks with Barack Obama on May 17 as a pointer to the US administration’s policies.
Trepidation in Tehran, Damascus, Hizballah
The Palestinian leader was rebuffed again Monday, May 23, when he asked to see the Saudi King. He was told that Riyadh had shut the door on him for choosing to deal with the Egyptian military junta and sign a pact with Hamas under Cairo’s auspices.
The following day, Jordan’s king arrived in the Egyptian capital in the capacity of the Saudi royal rulers’ go-between with Cairo and the Palestinians.
Those steps were interpreted by US officials, according to our Washington sources, as programmed jointly by the Saudis and Israelis to lend extra weight to Netanyahu’s presentation to the US president of their strategic partnership.
This burgeoning alliance is the cause of much trepidation in Tehran, Damascus and the Lebanese Hizballah, amid fears that it will undermine them and thwart their objectives. Those fears threw up the bizarre spy affair which the Lebanese authorities claimed to have uncovered on May 21 when they arrested a Shiite sheikh on suspicion of spying for Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Sheikh Mohammad Ali Husseini, leader of an obscure “resistance group”, was arrested at his apartment in the Riz compound east of the southern Lebanese port of Tyre on the basis on information gathered in ten days. He was taken to the Defense Ministry in East Beirut for questioning and his computers, communication equipment and documents impounded.
Lebanese sources revealed that Hussein had been funded by Saudi Arabia since 2008.
That incident marks the first time anyone in the region has ever been accused of spying jointly for Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is a mark of the waves their collaboration is making in the region.