Arab world

Tentative Steps Toward a New Saudi-Israeli Relationship

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Israel have been a consistent global issue. Recently, there is evidence of progress towards normalization, especially with an eye to cooperation on domestic development with the ambitious Saudi Vision 2030, but political challenges remain.
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NEOM, Saudi Arabia – 03 June 2020: Advertisement in the NEOM Region in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia © SaudiArabiaPhotography / shutterstock.com

June 25, 2023 10:38 EDT
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On May 7th, a US delegation led by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan traveled to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This meeting was held to discuss prospects for normalization of relations with Israel in light of thawed relations between President Biden, MbS and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Motivations for Normalization Now

Former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Jordan assumed his duties in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. At the time, Jordan was directed to question the governor of Riyadh, Prince Salman, now King of Saudi Arabia, on how Saudi nationals constituted 15 of the 19 hijackers. Salman denied Saudi involvement and shifted blame to the Israelis, in what he considered a conspiracy to drive a wedge between the US and the kingdom. A meeting with the minister of interior, Prince Nayef, produced similar results. Both meetings illustrated that in the Saudi mind: everything wrong with the world in those days was the fault of Israel.

Marking a sharp turn in Saudi opinion, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (commonly known as MbS) commented in 2022, “we don’t look at Israel as an enemy, we look to them as a potential ally, with many interests that we can pursue together.” Saudi businessman and Prince, Alwaleed bin Talal, also expressed how both countries are now intertwined and on the potential path for normalization; “for the first time, Saudi Arabian interests and Israel are almost parallel…It’s incredible.’

The crown prince calculates that the parallel interests that are driven by domestic projects and the economic, commercial, and financial benefits acquired through normalization will be beneficial for the kingdom. Tel Aviv is a natural ally for Saudi Arabia. It is a leader in environmental advances and the energy sector, which could be an aid in the Saudi project Vision 2030. The Saudis therefore acknowledge that a relationship with Israel is mutually beneficial and could aid in transforming their economy into a high-tech financial center.

Israel’s economy is complementary to Saudi Arabia, not competitive with it like the energy-based economies of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, whose own oil diversification and modernization strategies are very similar to Saudi Arabia’s. Normalization will also serve the wider goal of establishing a more integrated, regionally focused economy, while at the same time enhancing security. Tel Aviv can assist Riyadh in countering perceived internal terrorist security issues and the perceived Iranian threat. This can also foster closer security relations and enable a regional security complex to emerge that can rival the declining thirty-year-old US-dominated role. Politically, the Saudis also recognize the prospects of normalization as a substantial bargaining chip with any new presidential administration.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan suggested in a speech at a Washington think tank that negotiations towards normalization were underway, but declined to comment further. He said he did not want to “upset the efforts we are undertaking on this issue.” Tellingly, Sullivan stressed that “getting to full normalization is a declared national security interest of the United States. We have been clear about that.” The rumored appointment of former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Shapiro, by Secretary of State Tony Blinken, as an envoy for the Abraham Accords also highlights the administrations ambitious desire to implement an Israeli-Saudi deal.

Joe Biden’s Saudi Arabia Visit to Meet Mohammad bin Salman

For President Biden, foreign policy and domestic politics motivate Washington’s drive towards normalization. A success could help to counter criticism of US diplomatic decline in the Middle East after the China-brokered peace deal between Saudi and Iran. 

The Biden administration calculates the prospect of Israeli normalization with Saudi Arabia might be enough to convince Netanyahu to abandon some of Israel’s more egregious policies towards the West Bank. The administration inherited the Abraham Accords and realized they are keen on broadening the circle of Arab Israeli normalization.

The Israeli prime minister perceives Saudi Arabia as the paramount outreach to the Arab world and a cornerstone of the Abraham Accords. A normalization deal would cement Israeli standing in the Arab world and reap the benefits of bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia.

Compromise is the Necessary Answer

Concessions from both parties are necessary for normalization to materialize, but each one needs to be viewed individually, not just considered as a package. The major problem rests in the multilateral nature of the negotiations: Netanyahu’s right-wing government must be willing to make concessions concerning the Palestinians. In a phone call with the Israeli prime minister, MbS iterated the demands necessary for normalization. This included strengthening the Palestinian security apparatus at the expense of the Israeli Defense Forces in Judea and Samaria, while requesting Palestinian security forces assume control over al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, leaving the Western Wall under full Israeli control.

The Biden Administration also established similar conditions to broker normalization. The White House stipulated the need for progression on the Palestinian issue regarding the restoration of peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. They also demanded Israel halt its judicial overhaul.

An EU diplomat emphasized that the Americans are unsure what price Netanyahu is willing to pay for normalization on the substantive issues. This includes allowing Riyadh a civilian nuclear program and access to more advanced weapons systems similar to those sold to Tel Aviv. The diplomat also questioned whether Netanyahu is politically capable to initiate conductive outreach to Palestine and the Palestinian Authority, “in order to make it easier for Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman to risk open agreement with Israel.”

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Netanyahu is constrained based on the political configuration of his government ministers. Zionist Ministers of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Bezalel Smotrich wanted to be compensated for agreeing to the pause in judicial reform which the prime minister, at least temporarily, agreed to accept.

Equally, both Saudi and American leadership are possibly discontented with the current Palestinian Authority leadership. This coupled with Netanyahu’s unwillingness to consider a two-state solution decreases the probability of a resolution to the Palestinian issue. The Saudis will probably be less supportive of Mahmoud Abbas than they have been in the past until there is new direction in the Palestinian government and the transition stabilizes. This is another area that will potentially allow Israel-Saudi relations to develop. 

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan consistently iterates the kingdom’s adherence to the Arab Peace Initiative which would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state on the basis of the two-state solution before normalization. However, MbS is more progressive regarding Palestine, holding a close circle of advisors known for sympathetic positions towards Israel. 

Saudi Arabia will be constrained on making peace with Israel, absent some major concessions for the Palestinians. The crown prince exercises tremendous power within the kingdom, but it is unclear how King Salman’s opinions shape the decision-making process in respect to Palestine. The crown prince must delicately balance normalizing relations with the issue of Palestine because unlike the UAE, turning their back to the Palestnians would hinder their goal of becoming a leader in the Arab World. 

The long-term ambitions of Saudi Arabia will likely accelerate normalization once MbS ascends the throne. However, there is a likelihood that the crown prince might wait until King Salman has passed, unless the US acquiesces to all his demands.

Saudi Arabia has much more ambition regarding the nature of concessions desired in return for normalization with the Biden Administration. MbS is demanding American assistance to establish a civilian nuclear program, a formal alliance with the US to include security guarantees perhaps similar to those offered to the UAE and the status of procuring US weapons similar to NATO member states or major non-NATO allies.

The sale of weapons, negotiation of a formal alliance/security agreement, and transfer of civilian nuclear technology will all require the active buy-in of Congress. But it won’t be easy.

A Future Perspective on Saudi-Israeli Relations

There is tentative evidence that relations are warming between Tel Aviv and Riyadh, given that the latter has permitted Israeli airplanes to overfly Saudi airspace. There have also been rumors of communication between their security services. Mossad and the Saudi General Intelligence Presidency have cooperated on addressing shared concerns, including on the Iranian nuclear program, Sunni extremism and other security issues.

Additionally, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, accompanied by other Israeli officials and then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, reportedly had an exchange in Neom with the crown prince in late 2020. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reportedly met with the Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs, Ron Dermer, to further discuss Saudi Arabia. 

Importantly, the direct overflight permission granted to Israeli airlines and the development of special visas for Israeli businesspeople are significant steps with the prospects to further facilitate business transactions already taking place. Tel Aviv has been engrained both overtly and covertly in commercial and business activities with Saudi Arabia for years. 

Publicly, a number of high-profile Israeli businessmen attended the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh last year signaling Tel Aviv’s growing acceptance in Saudi Arabia. It was reported during the conference that Saudi Arabia and Israel signed two multi-million dollar deals concerning water and agricultural technology.

MbS is focused on domestic issues where Israeli commercial and economic relations can assist in making Vision 2030 a reality. Israeli companies, investors and businessmen are playing a role in the Vision 2030 development agenda. Growing commercial ties can support the kingdom’s transformation from an oil-dependent to successfully diversified economy. 

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel are at a high point, perhaps the best they have ever been. Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen remains optimistic, reportedly stating that “he believes some kind of breakthrough in normalization talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia could well occur by the end of the year.”

While it is clear that the Saudis are interested in normalization, the process will manifest incrementally at this moment in time and more precipitously once MbS becomes king.

[Lane Gibson edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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