Growing Saudi-Israeli Ties Could Be an Ominous Sign

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman apparently isn’t giving any quarter the extremist old guard. In addition to plowing ahead in his hawkish stance against Iran, he’s also cracking down on extremist clerics in the oil kingdom in a way no Saudi leader has eve
The Saudis are making it clearer than ever that it’s okay to partner with Israel. The Saudis are making it clearer than ever that it’s okay to partner with Israel.

The winds of war in the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia against Iran, are turning into a full-blown sandstorm. And the latest evidence of this comes from a surprising source: An interview in a Saudi newspaper.

No, a relatively short interview in an Arabic-language paper in Riyadh isn’t usually a big deal. But it is when that interview is with the chief of staff of the Israel defense forces, Lt. General Gadi Eisenkot, CNBC reported.

The interview alone is big news, as it’s the first of its kind with an Israeli military official in the Saudi press. But it’s what Eisenkot said in the interview that really made history and made it clearer than ever that Saudi Arabia and Iran are marching ever closer to a direct confrontation.

Here are the three Eisenkot quotes from Saudi Arabia’s Elaph newspaper that deserve the most attention:

“With President Donald Trump, there is an opportunity for a new international alliance in the region and a major strategic plan to stop the Iranian threat.”

“We are ready to share intelligence, (with Saudi Arabia), if necessary. There are many common interests between us.”

“Iran seeks to take control of the Middle East, creating a Shia crescent from Lebanon to Iran, and then from the [Persian] Gulf to the Red Sea. We must prevent this from happening.”

The creation of once non-existent ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel has been widely reported, but never publicly confirmed by either government, ever since the Iran nuclear deal was signed by the US and other key western nations.

There have been coy hints to be sure, like when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a halfhearted “no comment” to 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl when she asked him last year if Israel had improved its relationship with Saudi Arabia as part of a coalition against Iran.

And neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia has yet confirmed widespread reports in the Middle East media that new Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman secretly visited Israel in September.

In that context, General Eisenkot’s very public interview in a government sanctioned newspaper, (as all official newspapers are in Saudi Arabia), is a relatively massive public admission of allegiance between former sworn enemies. The new coalition ducks in a row for the ever more inevitable direct war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

To be clear, it’s not a political hot potato for the Israeli government or Netanyahu if such an alliance becomes public. While some segments of the Israeli public rebuff political leaders who make peace process concessions to the Palestinians, peace deals or cooperation with Arab nations for mutual security reasons are welcome news in Israel.

It’s in the Arab nations where this is very dicey. That’s especially true in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of extremist Wahabbism, where any acknowledgement of Israel’s legitimacy —let alone working with the country— can be met with massive and violent protest. The world saw that in stark terms when Muslim Brotherhood assassins murdered Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat in 1981 in retaliation for the peace deal he signed with Israel two years earlier.

But Crown Prince bin Salman apparently isn’t giving any quarter the extremist old guard. In addition to plowing ahead in his hawkish stance against Iran, he’s also cracking down on extremist clerics in the kingdom in a way no Saudi leader has ever even tried.

At the same time, the prince has been promoting clerics who speak of tolerance for Judaism and Christianity. He’s taken away the religious police’s power to make arrests for “crimes” like immodesty. And, as has been reported most widely of all, he and the king have finally started to lift the nation’s ban on women driving.

There is a method and a correlation to all of this. Bin Salman clearly understands that to fight Iran effectively and earn the crucial support he needs from the US and Israel, he must present the world with a clear difference in culture and intentions than Iran. If the Saudis continue to abandon the long-running race to lead the world in Islamic extremist and violent piety and show a willingness to recognize and respect Israel, that will be a stark enough difference for anyone to notice. And there’s a time element here as both Saudi Arabia and Israel are clearly seeing the current Trump administration in Washington as at least a silent partner in all this. But they also know this can change, so the time to move is now.

The Saudis, long the biggest bank in the Middle East and the controlling force behind OPEC, are making it clearer than ever that it’s okay to partner with Israel. On its face, that’s a peaceful and modernizing move.

But as anyone who knows the history of the region will tell you, right now the growing ties between the Saudis and Israelis could be an ominous sign that war is coming.

  Purge Expanded to Military Officials

Meanwhile, Saudi authorities have reportedly detained about two dozen military officials and several businessmen, widening a crackdown that has already ensnared princes, ministers and other wealthy elites.

Commanders in Saudi Arabia’s armed forces are among those authorities swept up as part of a corruption investigation in recent days, The Wall Street Journal reported. It was not clear whether they are accused of wrongdoing or were being called as witnesses, the Journal said.

The investigation is seen as both a campaign to rein in graft and a move to consolidate power under the crown prince who is widely expected to take his father’s place as king sometime soon.

The head of the National Guard, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, is among the royals who were detained in the first wave of arrests earlier this month.

The news of additional arrests follows reports that Saudi authorities are offering to release wealthy detainees if they forfeit their assets.

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