THE BLOG

Secret Talks Between Israelis and Saudis Reflect Regional Anxieties

06/22/2015 03:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2016

Given the sorry state of affairs in the Middle East, it's easy to conclude there's no end in sight to the ongoing chaos, violence and upheaval. Yet it is also a land of miracles. How else to explain recent revelations about secret meetings between Saudi Arabia and Israel to address a common foe, Iran.

Yes, Virginia, anything is possible in the Middle East.

What's not secret: Both Saudi Arabia and Israel harbor plenty of enmity toward Iran. They share a common vision -- preventing Iran from flexing its political and military muscles in the region -- even as they each have different interests. From the Saudi perspective, Iran represents a religious threat to the stability of the kingdom, mainly in its Shiite-dominant eastern region. Iran is run by Shiites, while the kingdom is ruled by Sunnis.

From the Israeli perspective, Tel Aviv worries about the expansion of Hamas and Hezbollah military capabilities -- especially when Iran acquires the bomb.

The most interesting aspect of this covert diplomacy is that these secret meetings started in 2014 when it became evident that the Obama administration was moving forward to reach an agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear program. Yet, coming out and publicly disclosing these meetings at the time was not an option, at least from the Saudi side. The reason: The meetings indicate that the Saudi kingdom recognizes Israel's right to exist -- a position the kingdom vehemently opposes, at least in principle.

Despite cooperation between Israel and the kingdom, the latter will neither recognize the Jewish state nor establish formal diplomatic ties such as Jordan and Egypt have.

To avoid drawing any attention, the bilateral meetings took place in India, Italy and the Czech Republic -- countries we hardly hear about when it comes to Middle East politics. Embarking on these secret meetings suggests that Washington gives its blessing but also wants to remain behind the scenes. Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010 suggest Israeli Foreign Ministry official Yacov Hadas believed the only reason for rapprochement between the Saudis and Israel is the kingdom and other Gulf monarchies believe Israel is in good position to influence Washington and advance Arab interests in limiting Iran's ideological and military expansion in the Middle East.

Cooperation between the Saudis and Israel represents a sea change, some international security analysts say. What's more unusual is that Dore Gold -- the Israeli representative who in 2003 published a book, "Hatred Kingdom," in which he disclosed the role the kingdom played in financing terrorism and extremist ideology (Wahhabism) -- now finds himself strategizing with Saudis on how to limit Iran's expansion. Talk of ironies!

Those who believe any cooperation between the Saudis and Israelis will last are probably mistaken. They might share similar objectives but Saudis really fear Shia dominance in the region could weaken the kingdom's religious authority it has claimed since the very birth of Islam. The Jewish state worries that, with civil war in Syria, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is operating uncomfortably close to the Israeli-Syrian border. Fighting inside Syria might spill over into Israel.

Israel is also concerned about Iran supplying Hezbollah with sophisticated missiles as opposed to unguided, unwieldy rockets.

What I find interesting is how the Saudis bypassed the United States and engaged directly with Israel, our nation's strongest ally in the region. This suggests King Salman wants his kingdom to project its ability to operate unilaterally without the support of the United States. The projection of this power consists of military undertaking (through its air campaign in Yemen) and diplomatic influence (snubbing the United States by not attending the recent Camp David summit). Do these steps the Saudis have taken suggest how irrelevant the United States has become? Undoubtedly.

Meanwhile, Israel must understand this is all about the Sunni-Shiite divide. However, if President Obama reaches a deal with Iran, it could count not only as his foreign policy legacy but further bolster relations between two U.S. allies in the Middle East one never could have imagined coming together. Will such miracles never cease?