Some Israelis were concerned when they read President Donald Trump’s recent statements to the media about the reasons for his support of Saudi Arabia.
In an interview with the Washington Post last week, Trump linked his support for the Saudi regime, and his unwillingness to punish Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) for the Jamal Khashoggi killing, to Israel.
Trump said of the Saudis, “They’ve been a great ally. Without them, Israel would be in a lot more trouble. We need to have a counterbalance to Iran.”
Trump added, “It’s very important to have Saudi Arabia as an ally, very important to maintain that relationship … if we’re going to stay in that part of the world. Now, are we going to stay in that part of the world? One reason to is Israel. Oil is becoming less and less of a reason because we’re producing more oil now than we’ve every produced. So you know, all of the sudden it gets to a point where you don’t have to stay there.”
As senior Israeli defense analyst Ron Ben Yishai wrote on Thursday, Saudi Arabia needs Israel just as much, if not more than, Israel needs Saudi Arabia. Iran and its nuclear program threaten Saudi Arabia even more acutely than they threaten Israel. Saudi Arabia is across the Persian Gulf from Iran and is weaker than Iran. If Iran develops a nuclear arsenal, it could destroy the Saudi regime.
Ben Yishai noted that Saudi Arabia’s greatest potential assistance to Israel would come in the form of permission for Israeli fighter jets to overfly Saudi airspace en route to bombing Iran’s nuclear installations.
But, he notes, Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Gulf states arguably have more to gain and less to lose from an Israeli strike on Iran than Israel does. In other words, if the Saudis were to permit the Israeli Air Force (AIF) to traverse their airspace en route to Iran, they would be doing so more for their own benefit than for Israel’s.
Saudi Arabia is apparently playing a major role in the thaw in relations between Israel and a growing number of Arab and Muslim states. According to a report in the Arabic media, MBS and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah a-Sisi have decided to encourage Arab states to trade with Israel. That is good for Israel but it also provides political space for the Saudis to work with Israel to thwart Iran’s hegemonic and nuclear ambitions in the region.
This, then, brings us back to Trump’s statement.
Israelis are relating a twofold concern about Trump’s remarks. First, he appears to be saying that Israel would be helpless without the Saudi regime, and that the U.S. needs to retain its close ties to Saudi Arabia to secure Israel.
This is not the case. True, Israel and Saudi Arabia gain from their alliance with the U.S. And the potential for Israeli-Saudi relations has increased since Trump embraced them both as key allies. But the two sides reached out to each other before Trump became president. The Saudi-Israeli partnership began in response to then-President Barack Obama’s decision to appease Iran at their expense through the nuclear deal.
The second – and deeper – concern Israelis are expressing in relation to Trump’s statement is that he appears to be saying that the U.S. is only in the Middle East to protect Israel.
As Ben Yishai wrote, it is likely that some of the American servicemen who are deployed today in multiple theaters in the region will be killed in action at some time, in some places. Ben Yishai argued that Trump’s statement effectively says that “the American military presence is necessary mainly because of Israel.” And as a consequence, when American servicemen in Syria, or Iraq, or Jordan, or elsewhere are killed, “many in the United States will blame Israel for the[ir] deaths.”
The truth is that Trump is right to view Israel as central to American policies in relation to the Middle East. The problem with his remarks is that he did not explain why. He did not point out the roots of Israel’s significance in U.S. calculations, for example.
It is worth explaining that now.
The root of Israel’s enduring significance to the U.S. is found in the fact that the Jewish state shares all of America’s core interests in relation to the region.
The first U.S. core interest in the Middle East is to prevent any competing superpower from taking over. The U.S. does not want China or Russia to supplant it as the preeminent superpower in the region, both because such an event would harm the U.S. economically, and because it would make America’s rivals significantly stronger and the U.S. significantly weaker.
Israel shares this U.S. interest. Israel can develop close ties with both Russia and China on a transactional level based on episodic common interests. But unlike the U.S., Russia and China do not share Israel’s permanent perception of its interests the way the U.S. does.
Along these lines, the second permanent U.S. interest in the Middle East is to prevent local powers from dominating the region, proliferating weapons of mass destruction, or acquiring intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Israel’s acute concern with all of these issues has caused it to develop intelligence agencies second to none in gathering and acting on intelligence relating to all of these issues — not only in Israel, but worldwide. Israel’s Mossad’s seizure of Iran’s nuclear archive in Tehran this past January is a testament to Israel’s capabilities.
The Middle East remains the world’s largest incubator for terrorism and the largest exporter of terrorists. Israel’s unhappy distinction is that it has been fighting these forces since before it was established. The U.S. and Israel share a key interest in destroying terror groups operating in the Middle East to prevent them from attacking in the region and throughout the world.
The final interest that Israel and the U.S. share is enabling the smooth flow of oil from the region to ensure the stability of global oil prices — and, through them, the stability of the global economy.
Israel’s interest is not that of a supplier, or even that of a purchaser, but as a victim of Arab oil power.
In 1973, the Arab members of OPEC imposed an oil embargo on the U.S. and other states that supported Israel during the 1973 Arab war against Israel. In response to the embargo, western European nations largely abandoned their previous alliances with Israel. The U.S. maintained its support for Israel, but adopted a policy of turning a blind eye to Palestinian terrorism — even when it was directed against Americans — and of providing only conditional support for Israel in its wars with its Arab neighbors.
Given this last interest, the strategic implications of America’s recent restoration of its position as the largest global oil producer become clearer. Trump’s essential insight — that reduced dependence on Arab oil is good for the U.S. — does not, by itself, spell out how that reduced dependence makes the U.S. safer or stronger.
Reduced dependence on Arab oil frees the U.S. to stand up for itself and its interests more forthrightly than it was able to do when the Arab states could impose oil embargoes at will and raise or lower prices whenever they wished.
The implication, as far as Israel is concerned, is that for the first time, perhaps since the 1973 OPEC embargo, the U.S. is today free to stand with Israel. Since they share the same permanent interests in the region, the stronger America is, the better off Israel is, and the stronger Israel is, the better off America is.
America may yet find a way to diminish its presence in the region. But the key to accomplishing that goal is to ensure that Israel defeats its enemies and develops and maintains its ability to protect itself, by itself – and so defend American interests — on a permanent basis.