The Middle East's Worst-kept Secret

By Yoel Guzansky

Reactions to the proposed $60 billion US-Saudi arms deal demonstrate how similar threat perception vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran is bringing about greater cooperation between Arabs and Israelis, who in many ways see the strategic environment through a similar prism.

Previous arms sales - none of which were as large - encountered strong opposition from the Israeli government. This time Jerusalem has remained relatively quiet. Is this because Washington values the deal over Israeli concerns, or is Israel becoming more comfortable with weapons sales to the Gulf?

The rise of Iran and the mutual fear in Jerusalem and Riyadh of its nuclear aspirations make the political and religious differences between the two capitals pale in comparison.

Israel and the Arab Gulf states do not regard one another as a direct and pressing threat. The fact that the Gulf states are considered politically moderate, that there is no "bad blood" between them and Israel, that they are all close to the US and that there is a growing shared threat perception regarding Iran leads many here and in the Gulf to see the value of an ad hoc partnership. All involved have a strong interest in bolstering their relations, however quietly, to weaken the influence of radical forces in the region.

FOR THE Arab monarchies, regime stability and Iran's drive for a hegemonic role in the Gulf are the main concerns. On the one hand, Teheran has tried to convey that it sees itself as a partner of all Gulf states. On the other, its words and actions have aroused concern on the western side of the Gulf: It has challenged the legitimacy of local regimes, explicitly threatened to shut the Straits of Hormuz and to target strategic facilities in the Gulf states, conducted intimidating military maneuvers, occupied Abu Musa and the Tunb Islands and has even declared that Bahrain is the 14th district of Iran, which is reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's rhetoric regarding Kuwait in 1990.

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The royal families see the difficulties facing the international community in stopping Iran on its way to nuclear capability and want to avoid angering their increasingly powerful neighbor - and prefer to do what is necessary behind the scenes.

Both Israelis and Arabs worry that an Iranian bomb will enable Teheran to determine the region's future strategic agenda. To confront the threat, the monarchs have chosen an often contradictory strategy that combines efforts at reconciliation, overt support for diplomatic negotiations to resolve the nuclear crisis and reliance on American military forces as a deterrent and for protection, with behind the scenes activity whose main goal is to distance the conflict from their territory.

Although religiously conservative, the Gulf states fear Iran, are close to the US and, above all, want to preserve regional stability. They would thus seem to be natural supporters of Arab peace with Israel. Indeed, any progress made by Israelis and Palestinians towards peace would also make it easier for them to resume confidence-building measures and to otherwise defrost their relations with the Jewish state. Regardless, the more Iran is perceived as a threat to both Israel and to the Arab Gulf states, the easier it will be for them to cooperate.

IT IS an open secret that at least some Gulf countries maintain covert contacts with Israel, primarily for intelligence sharing. It has been reported often (though with questionable reliability) that Saudi Arabia would allow the IAF to use its airspace to attack Iran's nuclear sites, and that senior Israeli officials, including the head of the Mossad, meet with Gulf officials with increasing regularity.

Indeed, in the eyes of Arab Gulf rulers it may seem that Israel can play a critical role in ensuring Gulf security, especially with the US determined to leave Iraq and Afghanistan. In this regard, recent reports of Israeli submarine activity in the Gulf are noteworthy.

Formal relations would bring only modest political and economic rewards to Gulf countries, in comparison with the potential political losses from domestic and pan- Arab pressure. Whether the monarchs change the dual nature of their policy - formal opposition to normalizing relations along with maintaining this unprecedented, even if tacit by nature, alliance with Israel - remains to be seen. For now, it serves both sides' particular interests.

The writer is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

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