Israel and Saudi Arabia publicly acknowledge secret bilateral talks

Sometimes, high school romance is the best analogy for diplomacy.  If so, then Saudi Arabia just told the other kids she’s been secretly dating Israel despite her well-known declaration back in freshman year that Israel was totally uncool.  There’s no ring yet – Saudi Arabia still hasn’t formally recognized Israel’s right to exist.  But by declaring in front of all the other kids (at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York) that the two nations have held five bilateral meetings over the last 17 months, in India, Italy, and the Czech Republic, the word is now officially out, and Iran is sulking.

For it was Iran that drew these two together, in one of those crazy, unanticipated affairs that happen among adolescents and serious nations alike, when rivalries, pride, fear, and ambition mix together in a volatile brew.

Eli Lake recounts the semi-historical reveal at the CFR in Bloomberg:

One participant, Shimon Shapira, a retired Israeli general and an expert on the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, told me: "We discovered we have the same problems and same challenges and some of the same answers." Shapira described the problem as Iran's activities in the region, and said both sides had discussed political and economic ways to blunt them, but wouldn't get into any further specifics.

Those specifics have to remain secret because they probably involve the use of military assets.  One of the principal problems Israel would face in an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is the distance between its bases and the Iranian targets, requiring aerial refueling of its attack aircraft.  Saudi Arabia just happens to have air bases near Iranian territory, offering the possibility of multiple sorties per day, with less flight time and pilot fatigue, and obviating the need for aerial refueling.

The Saudi official who spoke, Anwar Majed Eshki, a retired Saudi general and ex-adviser to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., laid out an intriguing strategy:

He ended his remarks with a seven-point plan for the Middle East. Atop the list was achieving peace between Israel and the Arabs. Second came regime-change in Iran. Also on the list were greater Arab unity, the establishment of an Arab regional military force, and a call for an independent Kurdistan to be made up of territory now belonging to Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

Now, peace between Israel and the Arabs may be just boilerplate, or it may signify something going on behind the scenes – a willingness to cut a deal, for instance, recognizing Jordan as the Palestinian homeland, granting Israel recognition, and cutting off Saudi support to those Palestinian factions intent on destroying Israel.  The point on recognizing Kurdistan is extremely provocative toward Turkey, in particular.  Iraq has all but ceased to exist, and Iran is already a self-declared mortal threat to Saudi as well as Israel.

Even with low oil prices, Saudi Arabia has plenty of surplus cash available to finance these moves.  Just by announcing them, Saudi Arabia has lighted a fire.

These are interesting times, indeed, in the Middle East.

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