In 2000, Ariel Sharon made a Jewish ‘pilgrimage’ to what he called the Temple Mount. What Muslims call Haram al-Sharif, Islam’s third holiest shrine. I’m not aware of any senior Israeli politician who had ever done so. It was a deliberate provocation. A declaration of control and sovereignty by Israel of Muslim holy sites. This commenced the Second Intifada, in which thousands of Israelis and Palestinians died.
But this extraordinary act of incitement enabled him to win election as prime minister in 2001. Taking stock after victory, he had inherited a Mossad chief, Efraim Halevy from the previous prime minister. In 2002, Sharon decided to cashier Halevy in favor of a Mossad boss who, he famously said, would “have a knife between his teeth.” So began the bloody region of Dagan, who was responsible for, among other things, the disastrous Dubai assassination of Mahmoud al Mabouh.
Halevy, though no wallflower, was known as an especially analytical and pragmatic figure, something antithetical to Sharon’s brash personal style. Unfortunately for Israel, the country’s politics have turned progressively more extremist since that period. Though Halevy has remained ever thoughtful and contrarian in his views.
In yesterday’s Haaretz, he wrote an especially provocative column related to the Saudi-Iran diplomatic breakthrough. While other commentators (including me) were toting up winners and loser, Halevy had something totally different in mind. He had an idea. One that would benefit Israel immensely if translated into action. The problem, of course, is that there are no thoughtful, pragmatic figures in Israeli politics who could implement it.
Nevertheless, it deserves a hearing. I’ve translated the last few paragraphs from the original Hebrew version of the article:
…This should be the moment Israel examines the possibility of taking advantage of this development.
It should initiate a cautious examination of the possibiity of an Israeli overture toward Iran. It’s worth noting that only a few years ago Iran carried out a missile attak against a major Saudi oil field.
And that Iran continues to intervene in the southern Arabian peninsula [Yemen]. Iranian-Saudi hostility was fierce only day before yesterday. Yet now China has succeeded in bringing two sworn enemies together to resume relations.
The sentiment is clear: despite decades of Israeli-Iranian hatred and venom dating back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, enemies may become, if not friends, then at least not-enemies. Many have stated (including me) that Israel and Iran share much in the realms of technology, innovation and even history. Among other things, Iran has the largest Jewish community in the Middle East. A normalization would permit not only commerce, but a cross-fertilization in many areas.
But of course, the most important need right now is to cool tensions between them.
Amir Oren, one of Israel’s most thoughtful journalists, added his own thoughts to Halevy’s:
1/ האמנם הסכם איראן-סעודיה רע לישראל?
אם מטרת-העל של מדיניות החוץ והבטחון של ישראל היא מניעת התגרענות צבאית של אומות מוסלמיות (כולל סעודיה, פן יקום בה משטר עויין לאחר שתתגרען), עליה לברך על הפשרת יחסי טהרן-ריאד, ולו גם על תנאי, חשדהו יותר מכבדהו. הנזילות טובה: סיכוי לשבירת תבניות
— אמיר אורן – Amir Oren (@Rimanero) March 11, 2023
If, he says, Israel’s ultimate goal is to restrict the development of nuclear weapons among the Muslim-Arab states of the region (the Saudis as well as Iran), then Israel should actually welcome the Saudi-Iran pact, though with a dose of skepticism. Sometimes it’s a good thing to break the mold and let the liquid pour out.
Despite Netanyahu celebrating the supposed new alliance with the Saudis and even predicting Israel too would commence diplomatic relations, the Saudis were, Oren believes, actually afraid that they would become a target of Iran should Israel have attacked. That’s why they, in effect, bought themselves a second insurance policy. The Saudis understood that the US was no longer its inviolable security guarantor. So it took the bold step of looking the issue squarely in the eye and deciding to take an entirely different tack. It went right to the heart of the matter: Iran.
This left Israel more or less out in the cold. All the more so in that Netanyahu, as most prime ministers before him, rejected the 2002 Saudi peace initiative which could have resolved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict decades ago. Would he embrace it today, he would likely obtain his heart’s desire, diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. But he cannot take this path for fear it would cost him the support of the Israeli hard-right, indispensable to his political base. That, in effect, leaves Netanyahu and Israel frozen in time, while the Saudis pursue their own, more pragmatic independent path.
When, or should I say if Israel recovers from its current national nightmare, it would behoove it to adopt the flexibility and pragmatism of the Saudis. It could approach China (another country Bibi has spent enormous effort to cultivate as a buffer to the US), fresh from its major diplomatic achievement, to undertake another major effort. In return for Iran ceasing hostilities against Israel, the latter would end its own attempts to overthrow the Iranian Republic. It may not be love. But it would be co-existence. And it would obviate the necessity for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon. At least, it would make Iran much more amenable to a negotiated agreement to restrain its own nuclear program, just as the JCPOA did until Trump tossed it in the trash heap in 2017. It’s worth a shot. And costs nothing.