Why Israel Is Backing the Saudi Arms Deal

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Vladimir Rodionov / AFP / Getty

Saudi F-15 fighter jets escort the plane of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Israel has come out in support of a multi-billion dollar U.S. arms deal to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. I can't remember the last time Israel supported a deal like this. Probably because it never has. So what exactly is going on this time?

Earlier this month I was in Nablus, the most radicalized Palestinian town in the West Bank. The Israeli Defense Forces enter it only in force — and preferably in armor. I was standing in the main square when a disabled man on an all-terrain vehicle came weaving through traffic. He bounced across the curb in front of me to avoid a vendor's cart, shouting, "We need Hasan Nasrallah here to impose a little order."

I was surprised to hear Nasrallah's name evoked in Nablus. Nasrallah, the secretary general of Lebanon's Hizballah, is a radical Shi'a. Nablus is Sunni, with segments increasingly attracted to Hamas radicalism. I walked around Nablus's old bazaar conducting an impromptu poll. To a person, everyone admired Nasrallah, for how he had fought the Israelis to a standstill in last summer's 34-day war.

Just to make sure Nasrallah enjoyed the support he seemed to I asked the head of an Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade cell holed up in Nablus's Balata refugee camp. He is wanted by the Israelis, and constantly moves from house to house to avoid them. When he heard Nasrallah's name, he put his fingers to his lips. "I love that man," he said.

The point of all this is that Hasan Nasrallah and Hizballah are the creation of Iran, the tip of Iran's spear pointed at Israel's throat. If anyone still has any doubts about Nasrallah's standing with Iran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a "greeting card" to Nasrallah to mark the first anniversary of last year's war. As Ahmadinejad put it, "the wonderful victory of the Lebanese people over the Zionist occupiers is a result of faith, unity, and resistance."

It's Nasrallah and Iran, then, that moved Israel to break with a 60-year policy of opposing arms sales to the Arabs.

And the Israelis make no bones about how we got here: the Bush Administration completely botched the Iraq invasion, allowing Iran to effectively annex Basra and a large part of southern Iraq. The Israelis' nightmare is that there will be some sort of domino effect, the Iranians moving down the Arab side of the Gulf.

The Israelis also believe the Iraq fiasco emboldened Iran to incite its Palestinian allies. Israel holds Iran at least partially responsible for Hamas's coup in Gaza. An Administration official, speaking privately, agrees. Today, Iranian couriers cross the border from Egypt into Gaza daily carrying bags of money to keep Hamas afloat.

The Israelis want to stop Nasrallah, Hizballah and Iran from making serious inroads into the West Bank. What keeps them awake at night is Iran in the Gulf. If it means our arming Israel's historical enemies, the Gulf Arabs, so be it.

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down.