Back in 1982, Pierre Gemayel, the courtly leader of the right-wing Phalange Party, Lebanon’s strongest Christian political group, made what seemed at the time to be a shrewd move. Always on the lookout for a powerful, preferably Western ally to protect Lebanon’s Christians from the neighboring Arabs states and affiliated groups that often meddled in the country’s internal affairs, Gemayel and his son Bashir, the Phalangist military commander, welcomed an invading Israeli army hellbent on expelling Syrian occupation forces and Palestine Liberation Organization guerillas who had taken over the southern border region. By the end of the summer, the Israelis had driven the Syrians and the PLO out of the country, and Bashir, with his father’s blessing, rode the Israeli victory to Lebanon’s presidency.
Three weeks later, however, Bashir was dead, the victim of Syrian assassins. So Gemayel implemented his Plan B, which entailed getting his remaining son, Amine, elected as president. Only this time, he made sure Amine ran on a pro-Syrian platform.
Amine won his election, served his six-year term and today still remains active in Lebanese politics at the age of 81. The Lebanese, having survived under scores of foreign occupiers over the centuries by knowing how to roll with the punches, have a saying that captures their hard-won pragmatism: “Whoever is sleeping with my mother is my father.”
Across the Middle East, survival often depends on knowing how to hedge against such reversals of fortune. And by welcoming Chinese diplomacy to resolve frictions in a region long regarded as a U.S. preserve, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has taken a page from Gemayel’s playbook: with his ties to the United States fraying badly, the Saudi leader’s turn to China to broker a normalization of relations with Iran has provided him with an alternative ally, allowing him to play off Washington against Beijing. The elder Gemayel, who died in his sleep in 1984, would be proud.
At the same time, however, Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iran has disturbed the Israelis, who have long maintained a discreet intelligence relationship with the kingdom. In recent years, that relationship has been grounded in their mutual concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, its growing influence across the Middle East, and terrorist attacks by Teheran’s Revolutionary Guard.
None of those issues have disappeared with the rapprochement agreement, so where does that leave the Israeli-Saudi intelligence relationship?