(Bloomberg) — Israel’s new government has stepped up US-backed talks with Saudi Arabia on developing closer military and intelligence ties in light of growing concerns about Iran, according to several people familiar with the discussions.
Officials from the two countries held exploratory meetings ahead of the recent US-Gulf Cooperation Council Working Group gathering on defense and security in Riyadh, six people said, asking not to be identified as the talks are private. Further engagement is expected to take place in Prague to coincide with the Munich Security Conference this weekend, three of the people said.
“We think that other regions integrating and beginning to sit at the same table with Israel is in the interest of stability and security in the region,” US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, Dana Stroul, said in Riyadh on Monday.
A healing of the historical rift between major US ally Israel and Saudi Arabia, the largest Middle East economy, would represent a significant realignment of regional politics. Yet a fully-fledged reset of relations may rest on an agreement related to Saudi Arabia’s publicly stated and long-held demand for the creation of a Palestinian state, some of the people said.
That looks less likely than ever due to escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians following the return to power of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who won an election as head of a far-right coalition late last year.
Saudi Arabia may have other preconditions, however, primarily an expanded and renewed commitment by Washington to help combat Iran, analysts have said. The US government and six Gulf states on Thursday jointly called Tehran a growing threat to regional security, and President Joe Biden has made closer integration of Israel in the region a priority to avoid conflict and temper oil prices.
Riyadh is at the same time conducting dialogue with Iran mediated by Iraq to try to address common conflict points.
“They have contacts all the time, accelerated to an extent, though I would not overplay it,” said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based international fellow of The Washington Institute, referring to Saudi Arabia and Israel. The two sides have “fairly convenient lines of communication on intelligence and air defense.”
Israel’s prime minister’s office and foreign ministry declined to comment, as did Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry.
A US State Department spokesperson deferred to the Saudi and Israeli governments for information about their latest talks but added that Washington supports “the building of connections between regional partners as essential to the region’s prosperity, peace, and stability.”
On the Saudi quest for new security and military commitments from the US as price for normalization with Israel, the spokesperson said Washington was “working with our Saudi partners to reinforce shared priorities in a relationship that promotes a more stable, prosperous, and integrated Middle East.”
A potential alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia would come after the former country repaired diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan in a series of deals brokered by the Donald Trump US administration in 2020, now known as the Abraham Accords. Since then, trade has flourished and Israel’s defense exports to those countries reached almost $800 million in 2021.
The agreement with Sudan has since stalled, but talks appear to have regained momentum following a visit by Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to Khartoum earlier this month. This is unlikely to have happened without approval from Riyadh, which has long given financial support to Khartoum and maintains historical and cultural ties.
There have been other signs of a warming relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Just before being sworn in as prime minister in December, Netanyahu gave an interview to the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV station in which he called normalizing relations between the majority Jewish and Muslim states “a quantum leap” that would “change our region in ways that are unimaginable.”
Saudi Arabia has begun allowing flights originating in Israel and destined for Asia and Australia to transit the country’s airspace, in what was seen as a win for Biden. And Saudi and Israeli military and intelligence officials have been meeting more often since Israel was included in the area of responsibility of the US Central Command encompassing Gulf Arab states.
Encouraging Saudi Arabia and other GCC states to share more intelligence and integrate air and missile defense and maritime security with one another and the US was a central objective of the talks held in Riyadh this week. That would help counter Iran, which has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who travels to Riyadh often to meet with Saudi officials, said while there is a “profound alignment in threat perceptions between the Israelis and the Saudis and other Gulf Arab governments,” when it comes to Iran, it is not enough on its own to be the basis of Saudi-Israeli normalization.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman may also be dangling normalization with Israel as a way to improve relations with the US, Alterman said, while Netanyahu can talk it up to deflect from troubles at home.
“Will it move beyond friends with benefits? It need not any time soon,” he said.
–With assistance from Ben Bartenstein and Courtney McBride.
(Updates with US State Department comment and adds detail on Saudi-Iran dialogue.)
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