By Julie Stahl, Jerusalem Bureau Chief

Seeking regional allies to make a stand against Iran and the growing Shi’ite Muslim radicalization, Saudi Arabia sees Israel as a likely ally, say experts.

Saudi Arabia, a strong U.S. ally in the Gulf, has never had diplomatic ties with the Jewish State. Until 2003, when the U.S. threatened to boycott Saudi banks, the desert kingdom was one of the main supporters of Hamas, the Palestinian ruling party, which is sworn to the destruction of the State of Israel.

In 2002, the Arab League accepted a Saudi initiative, which offered Israel full normalization of relations with Arab states in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including Jerusalem.

At the time, Israel downplayed the initiative and suggested that Saudi Arabia clean up its own act first before meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The proposal is considered a non-starter since it would require Israel to move back to indefensible borders without getting any guarantees in return.

But times have changed in the Middle East.

Israeli press reports suggest that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met recently with a senior official in the Saudi government, maybe even with the Saudi king.

Olmert denies the reports but praised the Saudis for standing up against Hezbollah in recent weeks. The Saudi government also dismissed reports of the meeting as a “fabrication.” But other media reports persist in suggesting that some contacts between Israeli and Saudi officials have taken place.

Whether or not the contacts took place, Saudi Arabia and Israel undoubtedly have a mutual interest — Iran, said Dr. Guy Bechor from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

Saudi Arabia, a majority Sunni Muslim country, is concerned about the strengthening of ties between Shi’ite Muslims in Iran and Iraq and with Hezbollah in Lebanon, said Bechor.

Iran has so far resisted international pressure to suspend its nuclear program, which Western states believe is intended to produce atomic weapons — something that Iran denies.

“[The Saudis fear that] if there is some type of attack against Iran from the West, Iran will hit Saudi Arabia,” said Bechor in a telephone interview.

Saudi Arabia is looking for friends and connections in the region and is working to create a Sunni alliance together with Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, and that anti-terror alliance could secretly include Israel, said Bechor.

“Iran is [the reason] behind Saudi willingness to back Israel,” said Dr. Mordechai Kedar of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

The real threat to Saudi stability is Iranian aspirations, Kedar said in a telephone interview. The Arabs understand that the Iranian claim of wanting to destroy Israel is only a cover-up for their real intentions, which are to take over the Gulf States. There are two motivations for wanting to do so: Tehran wants to unite the Shi’ites in the Gulf and for the oil, Kedar said.

(Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” In years past, friction and disagreement in the Arab world often was overcome by uniting Arab countries around the cause of hating Israel.)

“They conceal [their aims] by talking about Israel. It’s nothing more than a fig leaf,” Kedar said.

Israel is a “natural choice” in Saudi Arabia’s search for regional allies because it probably is the only country that will stand up to Hezbollah. No country in the Arab world is willing to do so, he said.

Hezbollah serves as a springboard for the Iranians’ plunge into the Arab world, he said. (Iran is not an Arab nation.) “Hezbollah is the extension of the Iranians in the Arab world,” he said, adding, “Iraq is the next extension of Iran.”

According to Bechor, the turmoil in Iraq worries the Saudis. The kind of government that is finally established in Iraq — whether it is a Shi’ite government, a politically Islamic government, or total chaos — will have an influence on Saudi Arabia, he said.

Riyadh [the Saudi capital] would therefore prefer to see the U.S. troops stay in Iraq forever like they are in Saudi Arabia, where they act as a stabilizing force, he added.

That Saudi Arabia worries about its security along the Iraqi border was emphasized by the announcement that it plans to build a 900 kilometer (540-mile) fence along its border with Iraq. Security advisor Nawaf Obaid said that the electronic-sensor barrier is intended “to seal the border on the Iraqi side since there has been almost no [Iraqi security] presence since the U.S. invasion.”

Since 2004, the Saudis have spent $1.8 billion to firm up the security along the Iraqi border, reports say.

Increased Iranian involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly since Saudi Arabia stopped backing Hamas three years ago, also troubles Saudi Arabia. The Iranians stepped in to fill the financial and training gap in Hamas when the Saudis pulled out. Now the Iranians are hinting that the Saudis have betrayed their Sunni brothers in Hamas.

The Iranians have portrayed the Saudis as traitors to the Palestinians. That is why the Saudis now want a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — even at the expense of sacrificing some Palestinian interests, said Kedar.

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