The perpetual talk of an impending normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia has recently taken up much space in the media as well as in quiet diplomatic rooms. The catalyst behind this is the diplomatic efforts on the part of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration.
President Biden dispatched three of his top advisors to Riyadh last week for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS. Their goal was to “discuss bilateral and regional matters, including initiatives to advance a common vision for a more peaceful, secure, prosperous, and stable Middle East region interconnected with the world,” the White House said.
Iran weighed on the reports of possible normalization, saying a Saudi-Israeli rapprochement would harm regional peace and stability, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said on Monday.
Historically, Saudi Arabia and Israel have had no formal diplomatic relations, and the two countries do not have any official contacts. They have been considered adversaries due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and differing regional interests.
Nonetheless, there are reports of backchannel communications and discreet cooperation on certain issues between Saudi Arabia and Israel, primarily driven by shared concerns about Iran’s regional influence and other security matters.
The American delegation in Riyadh included U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, accompanied by Brett McGurk, National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and Amos Hochstein, Biden’s senior adviser for energy and infrastructure.
The White House didn’t introduce a plan of how it will proceed, but statements from top officials and frequent visits to the kingdom indicate feverish movement by the U.S. administration on the issue.
President Biden told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in a recent interview that Israel and Saudi Arabia are a long way from a normalization agreement, saying that “we got a lot to talk about.”
Biden spoke about the issue during his visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia last year. In addition, officials within his administration have reportedly been deliberating a significant elevation in security relations with Riyadh, as well as major Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, aimed at keeping alive prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In June, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel ahead of his visit to Riyadh.
“The United States has a real national security interest in promoting normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Blinken said in a speech to the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. “We believe we can and indeed we must play an integral role in advancing it.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has great interest in normalizing ties with Saudi Arabia, to offset the current domestic crisis over the judicial reforms. Last Thursday, he told U.S. network ABC, “We’re working on it.”
Netanyahu announced on Sunday that Israel will build a $27 billion rail network that could extend to Saudi Arabia in the future.
Netanyahu sees such a deal as his ultimate achievement and has touted it for years—all to no avail.
“I think it’s too early to talk about a deal being in the works,” Yuli Edelstein, head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, told Israel’s Army Radio.
Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line that time is not on President Biden’s side.
“Mr. Biden would be consumed by the 2024 reelection campaign in less than a year, which means he would have to either complete this very complicated agreement quickly or take a break in the middle of negotiations, which is not a great idea, presuming he gets reelected,” Ibish said.
He maintained that most reports of negotiations are “rumors,” adding if it’s true, “it’s in its very initial stages.” It’s difficult to say the position of MBS on the issue “given the opacity of decision-making in Riyadh,” Ibish said.
"We have made it clear that peace comes at the end of this process, not at the beginning of it"
Riyadh has maintained its position that it will not fully normalize ties with Israel until a two-state solution with the Palestinians is reached.
“We have said that Saudi Arabia supports the Arab Peace Initiative. In fact, we offered it. We have made it clear that peace comes at the end of this process, not at the beginning of it,” former Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last June.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote on Thursday that if a deal were to happen, it would involve major Israeli concessions on the Palestinian issues including commitments to cease building more settlements, expand the limits of existing ones and legalize illegal outposts, as well the transfer of some Palestinian-populated territory in Area C of the West Bank to Palestinian Authority control.
Netanyahu is certain to face staunch opposition from far-right members of his coalition to any demands to make concessions to the Palestinians.
“We certainly won’t agree to such a thing,” National Missions Minister Orit Strock told Israeli public broadcaster Kan.
"The biggest question is Netanyahu. Not only does he want to remain prime minister, but he is also fighting to stay out of prison. He may need the extremists in his cabinet to help keep him a free man as well as the head of government in Israel"
It’s difficult to imagine the current Netanyahu coalition agreeing to make any compromises, says Ibish.
“The biggest question is Netanyahu. Not only does he want to remain prime minister, but he is also fighting to stay out of prison. He may need the extremists in his cabinet to help keep him a free man as well as the head of government in Israel,” he said.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, from the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, told Army Radio that he supported normalization deals with Arab countries but opposed concessions.
“If this deal includes concessions to the [Palestinian] Authority, handing over territory, arming the Authority or giving… terrorists power, then I surely object,” he said.
“Suffice it to say that while the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are probably ready for such an agreement, Israel probably isn’t. Unless it changes its government, which is a very complicated matter,” Ibish said.
According to Friedman, Saudi Arabia seeks U.S. cooperation in starting a civilian nuclear program. Some Israeli officials have rejected the idea, with Israel’s energy minister expressing his opposition last month to the idea of any such project as a result of the U.S.-mediated forging of relations between the countries.
However, Israeli national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi told Kan on Monday that Israel will not stand in the way of Saudi Arabia having a civilian nuclear program.
“Egypt and the [United Arab] Emirates operate nuclear research centers, and these are not dangerous,” he said.
Many observers say reaching such a deal would be considered a tectonic shift in the Middle East. The Saudi Crown Prince may hope to capitalize on the opportunity.
Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum, of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University, told The Media Line that President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu “urgently” need a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia, for reasons related to domestic political affairs in Washington and Israel.
He says that Riyadh intends to bargain hard for what would be a historical deal.
“Saudi Arabia is the least interested of the three parties because they can use a peace agreement with Israel as leverage to get these security guarantees from the United States,” Teitelbaum said.
In exchange for Israeli normalization, Saudi Arabia has reportedly made demands for a guaranteed NATO defense pact and greater access to U.S. weapons, according to Friedman.
“The Saudi royal family is mostly worried about their security, all their money—they have an intense insecurity about the royal family’s rule. They want protection guarantees,” Teitelbaum explained.
In recent years, there have been indications of a potential rapprochement between the two regional adversaries, with few yet dramatic public gestures that suggested a possible breakthrough in relations.
Saudi Arabia reversed the decades-long ban on Israeli overflights in Saudi airspace in 2022. Just last month, a team of Israeli gamers attended a video game version of the FIFA World Cup, hosted in Riyadh. Despite the lack of official diplomatic ties, several Israeli journalists and businessmen have been allowed to visit the kingdom in recent years.
“[Saudi Arabia] has cooperation with Israel already in various spheres of intelligence cooperation. So it does not seem to me that it has a lot to gain from full diplomatic relations,” Teitelbaum said.
“There are confidence-building measures that could be made, like allowing Israeli Muslim pilgrims to fly directly from Israel to the holy cities. There may be a trade delegation, like Israel had in Qatar for many years,” he continued.
Teitelbaum says that although full diplomatic relations are far off, he believes that the MBS is meticulously and carefully planning his moves.
“He is preparing the ground, modifying the education system, and making critical changes to the textbooks with less criticism of Israel,” he said.
Since becoming the ruler of the oil-rich kingdom, MBS has been pursuing a foreign policy that is more independent from Washington.
Ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are historical and strategic, but there has been some unease in their relations since President Biden’s election. This stems mainly from human rights issues, like the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a group tied to the Saudi royal palace, and Riyadh’s effort to raise oil prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In addition, its recent closeness to China may be fostering tensions with the U.S. Beijing brokered a reconciliation deal between Riyadh and its arch-rival Tehran last March, which led to the full restoration of Iranian-Saudi diplomatic ties.
But all that doesn’t mean that Washington and Riyadh are not closely cooperating on a myriad of other issues, including the conflicts in Yemen and Sudan. The U.S. is still a major partner on security and defense issues, and Washington’s military hardware is still preferred by the Saudis.
In 2020, former President Donald Trump brokered a normalization agreement known officially as the Abraham Accords, establishing diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Israel hopes that Saudi Arabia will follow suit.
“The calculation for Saudi Arabia is a lot more complex. It has a much bigger population, much more complex domestic politics, and could easily be seen as more brittle and fragile than the regimes in Abu Dhabi and Manama,” Ibish explained. “The Saudis also have to be cognizant of the potential impact on their regional Arab leadership role and their global Islamic leadership claims as well.”
A recent opinion poll commissioned by the Washington Institute has shown that support for the Abraham Accords in the Gulf is waning. In the UAE and Bahrain respectively, just 27% and 20% of respondents view the Accords as positive for the region. That compares to 47% and 45% in 2020.
“It’s not a surprise. Normalization with Israel is not popular with most Arabs, in whatever country, because of the ongoing occupation and extreme mistreatment of Palestinians. And it probably won’t be popular as long as those conditions persist,” Ibish said.
The Abraham Accords especially don’t enjoy popular support among the Palestinians, who described normalization as a “stab in the back” towards the Palestinian cause and insist that such agreements should be considered a reward before ending the occupation.
“I think it was expected that the excitement and euphoria that accompanied the Abraham Accords under Trump’s presidency would have subsided by now for several reasons. And I think it’s clear why such a drop has happened,” Jordanian political analyst Osama Al Sharif told The Media Line.
“First of all, you’ve had an Israeli government, which is openly racist in its hatred of the Palestinians and daily incursions of Muslim sites,” Al Sharif said. “This has been widely reported in the media, even the American media and the mainstream media, [and has] been condemned by the government in Bahrain and UAE as they attempted to distance themselves from government.”
Secondly, Al Sharif argues that the hope that the Abraham Accords would bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict never materialized.
“The fact that the Abraham Accords did not bring peace to the region to the Middle East [shows that] the core of the conflict remains the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” he said. “The fact that the Israeli government is openly rejecting the two-state solution makes achieving peace an impossible task.”
"Their demands are in concert with the Arab League position, with their own long-standing position with regard to the Arab Peace Initiative"
Al Sharif says the Palestinian issue still enjoys wide popular support among the Arab and Muslim people, and the Saudis understand that.
“To be honest, the Saudi position on Palestine is a principled one. And what happens behind closed doors, I think, is the same thing that is spoken [about] publicly,” Al Sharif said. “Their demands are in concert with the Arab League position, with their own long-standing position with regard to the Arab Peace Initiative.”
The Arab Peace Initiative, widely known as the Saudi Peace Initiative, was proposed by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah at the 2002 Arab League Summit in Beirut, Lebanon, and endorsed by that summit. The initiative calls for the resolution of the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts and a normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab countries, in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and the Gaza Strip, and resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue according to UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
Public rage grew in the Arab world last month following a raid in a Jenin refugee camp, a stronghold of Palestinian armed factions. This raid, one of Israel’s largest military operations in the West Bank, killed 12 Palestinians and was condemned by Saudi Arabia among other Arab League nations.
This article is written by Mohammad al-Kassim and reprinted with permission from The Media Line.