One of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared goals in his current term in office is to bring about normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu believes that once diplomatic relations with Riyadh are established, a collective Arab-Israeli peace will be achieved, and would help bring an end to the conflict with the Palestinians. Last March, however, a bombshell landed in Jerusalem and Washington DC. The Chinese mediated a surprise rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia that brought about the resumption of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran that were cut off in 2016.
The efforts to isolate the radical Ayatollah’s regime and build up a defense alliance between the Arab Gulf states and Israel were dashed. The Arab Gulf states favored such an alliance as protection against the Islamic Republic of Iran’s malign activities in the region. The Iranians, with the help of the Chinese Communists, outmaneuvered Israel, and the US. The Chinese were able to enter a vacuum left by the Obama-Biden administration’s withdrawal from the region. President Joe Biden had, moreover, insulted the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) in addition to projecting weakness. In the Saudi mindset, the Chinese, not the Americans, appear to be now the “strong horse.” And in the Middle East, where military resolve and strength are everything, MBS decided to cover all his bases.
Does it mean that the prospects of peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia are dead and gone? The answer is clearly no! The Saudis do not trust Iranian intentions, and the hostility between Shiite Persia (Iran) and Sunni Arabia is historical and long-standing, exacerbated by Iran’s sponsored Houthis terror against the Saudis, and Iran’s direct attack on Saudi oil production facilities in 2019.
Deeply discouraged by the Biden administration’s attitude toward Riyadh following a longstanding defense relationship with Washington, the Saudis sought out alternatives. The Saudis are nevertheless encouraged, if not admiring Israel’s resolute actions against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Saudis know that Washington might change its attitude once the White House’s current resident is replaced. Hence, the Saudi peace-train already left the station, and the question now is when will it reach its destination… peace with Israel? Riyadh seems to be speaking with two voices; it expresses support and hope for normalization with Israel on one hand and places difficult if not impossible conditions on the other. Yet the Saudis have acknowledged that Israel would be a counterbalance to Iran’s aggression, which might serve as a foundation for stability in the region.
The question about the relationship between Jerusalem and Riyadh is not so much if but when open formalities will start, albeit they are expected to be at a slow pace. Quiet, and beyond the curtains, there is movement. The Saudis are already permitting Israeli airlines to fly over Saudi airspace, and soon direct flights between the two countries will bring Israeli-Muslims to Mecca to perform the Haj. More critical, however, is the security cooperation between the two states, which is not taking place under public scrutiny. The Abraham Accords could not have been signed if the Saudis did not support the move. It is particularly true for Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In fact, the Saudis see no contradiction between diplomatic relations with Tehran along with Jerusalem, just as the UAE is maintaining diplomatic and friendly relations with Bashar Assad of Syria and the Iranians, while maintaining close relations with Israel.
In a Jerusalem Post piece (March 17, 2023), Hussain Abdul Hussain, a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies pointed out that Salman Aldossary, a columnist, and an influential voice on social media, supported the Saudi First policy, including bilateral Saudi peace with Israel. Aldossary, however, has not been a lone voice. Last year, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, known by his acronym MBS, said that he didn’t believe Israel was Riyadh’s enemy but a potential ally.
The Palestinian leaderships in both Gaza and Ramallah have been vehemently opposed to any gesture of peace between Israel and Arab states. They have condemned the Abraham Accords as a betrayal of the Palestinians and have similarly attacked the Saudis for even hinting at peace with Israel. This is why Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority was pleased with the Iranian-Saudi peace. Abbas, pandering to his Chinese hosts in his four-day visit to China, had this to say about the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement according to Iran’s IRNA News Service, “The problem of Iran and Saudi Arabia has a long history, and no country has successfully solved the problems between these two countries. But because China has good intentions, it was able to do this miracle.” The Saudis and the other Arab Gulf states are tired of the ungrateful Palestinians, but since the Saudis view themselves as the leaders of the Sunni-Muslim world, they are compelled to listen to the religious (Wahhabi) establishment, and domestic voices, among them the Palestinian expatriates.
To influence pro-Israel voters in next year’s presidential elections, and to challenge former President Donald Trump, his major Republican rival on peace-making between Israel and its Arab neighbors, President Joe Biden sent Brett McGurk to Riyadh last week. McGurk, the administration’s senior Middle East adviser is expected to discuss with Saudi officials a normalization agreement between Israel and the Saudi Kingdom. Biden is hesitant to make a deal too soon due to pressure from his radical-leftist Democrats in the US Congress. The Saudis, for their part, have demanded a price from the US for making peace with Israel. The Saudis want advanced weaponry from Washington and seek US cooperation in establishing a Saudi civilian nuclear program. They also want to upgrade US-Saudi relations, downgraded by the recent Democratic administrations, and they are seeking security guarantees from the US. Saudi officials have occasionally parroted the obligatory “demands” about a Two-State Solution, resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue, and similar talking points contained in the 2002 Arab League peace plan. Yet, in serious negotiations with the Americans such “demands” are no longer the essence of a future deal.
Meeting with Republican senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) last April, PM Netanyahu said, “We (Israelis) want normalization and peace with Saudi Arabia. We view that as perhaps a giant leap toward ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. This agreement could have monumental consequences, historic consequences both for Israel, for Saudi Arabia, for the region and for the world.” Let us hope that Netanyahu’s wishes coincide with that of the Saudis.