One of the more remarkable events in recent Middle East politics took place at a Washington DC think-tank, early in June. A retired Saudi Arabian general and the next director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry (the #2 job there) announced that they had been meeting in secret for months – in an unofficial, track-two’ format - to discuss challenges in the region, particularly the challenge of Iran.
Those who have a basic understanding of the Middle East will recognize that these two countries, Israel and Saudi Arabia, have been staunch enemies for decades. Their historic interests in the region have been mutually exclusive, and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians has been an especially deep source of animus. Saudi Arabia’s identity as the most conservative Islamic state in the world and Israel’s identity as the only national embodiment of the world’s Jewish community also underscore their historic differences.
Nevertheless, the two sides chose this moment to announce publicly their secret, bilateral discussions. A number of observations can be made here.
These were official meetings... that led to important conceptual and personal break-
First, this get-together is not unprecedented. During the Madrid Peace process (the major bilateral and regional Arab-Israeli negotiations of the 1990’s), Saudi and Israeli officials participated in multilateral discussions on a range of regional issues, including security. These were official meetings that involved governmental representatives, not ‘track-two’ discussions between private individuals with no current official standing. These discussions did not result in formal agreements, but they did lead to important conceptual and personal breakthroughs.
Second, the fact that these recent discussions were unofficial in nature does not mean they were of no consequence. One of the most important breakthroughs in Arab-Israeli negotiations, the Oslo accords of 1993, grew out of a track-two process that was initiated by Israeli academics. Although Oslo did not produce a finished Israeli-Palestinian peace, the process more than justified itself. It showed that quiet, unobtrusive discussions by unofficial but well plugged-in participants can pave the way for meaningful government-to-government negotiations. The Saudi-Israeli negotiations do not yet represent an Oslo-like foundation for rapprochement, but they show the potential for a narrowing of the strategic gap between these two important countries at some point in the future.
The key reason to go public now seems to be concern over the nuclear negotiations with Iran
Third, why did the two sides decide to announce their discussions at this time? Over the past year, a handful of reports surfaced claiming that Israel and Saudi Arabia were talking; these were always denied. The key reason to go public now seems to be concern over the nuclear negotiations with Iran. These negotiations, which have drawn out over the past 18 months, have been sharply criticized by Israel and Saudi Arabia. A political agreement was concluded earlier this spring, and the deadline to complete a technical agreement to contain Iran’s nuclear capability is June 30. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are adamant that any such agreement must be effective. In addition, Saudi Arabia faces Iranian pressure in Yemen and from Shi’ite enclaves in the Gulf, particularly Bahrain.
It seems clear that Iran, and not ISIS, represents the biggest regional threat to Israel and Saudi Arabia. These two countries, arguably the most important allies the U.S. has in the Middle East, have chosen a most unusual, public way to drive home their common view of the Iranian threat. It is hard to know how much to make of this Israeli-Saudi gesture, and whether it might lead to a wider degree of cooperation on regional issues of concern. For now, it helps underscore the far-reaching impact of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, arguably one of the most significant Middle East developments for many years.
I was a participant in the Madrid multilateral working group on regional security, and witnessed numerous constructive exchanges between Israeli and Saudi officials.