By Matija Šerić
At the end of September, the White House announced that Israel and Saudi Arabia, under American patronage, are moving towards the historic normalization of relations.
US President Joe Biden wants the recognition of the Jewish state by Saudi Arabia, the home of the two holiest places in Islam (Mecca and Medina), he hopes to transform the Middle East and thus achieve a major foreign policy victory in the upcoming election year. The White House said that both sides have established a common normalization platform on which they will work in the future. Since it is a complex process of reconciliation between two enemies, each side will have to make certain compromises in order for the agreement to be acceptable to the other side.
Normalization of great significance
American diplomats are currently making efforts to get their Middle Eastern allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, to normalize diplomatic relations, after Israel has already normalized relations with the Muslim countries of the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan in late 2020 and early 2021 under Trump’s auspices (Abraham Accords). Israel established ties with Egypt (1980) and Jordan (1994) even earlier.
The establishment of diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh, which has been increasingly talked about in recent months, would mark a tectonic geopolitical change in the Middle East, after which nothing would be the same. Israel would benefit enormously from normalized relations with the Saudi monarchy, which is considered the leading Arab and Muslim country in the world. There could be a wider relaxation in the relationship between Israel and Muslim countries. The Saudis, in turn, would strengthen their partnership with America. The Saudi-Israeli deal could also have serious implications for the Palestinian issue and China’s role in the Middle East.
In his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 22, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel is “on the threshold” of a transformative peace agreement with Saudi Arabia. “Such peace will go a long way toward ending the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Netanyahu said. “This will encourage other Arab states to normalize their relations with Israel. This will increase the prospects for peace with the Palestinians. It will promote a wider reconciliation between Judaism and Islam, between Jerusalem and Mecca, between the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael.” In those days, in an interview with Fox News, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that “every day we are getting closer” to a historic agreement with Israel, which he called “the biggest historical agreement after the Cold War”. It is not a question of if the agreement will happen, but when. However, there are many challenges in achieving the normalization of relations.
A difficult road to normalization
When looking at history, six phases can be identified in the gradual normalization of Saudi Arabia and Israel. In the first phase, from the 1990s, Saudi ties were secretly built with the Israeli authorities through the Mossad and the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Bandar bin Sultan. The second phase consisted of indirect diplomacy – Saudi Peace Initiative of 2002 (which was adopted by the Arab League and since then known as the Arab Peace Initiative). Riyadh offered Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. But Israel rejected that offer.
The third phase of normalization began after the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Then both countries identified Iran and Hezbollah as common enemies and undertook secret meetings to strengthen their defenses. In the same year, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, accompanied by Mossad chief Meir Dagan, met in Jordan with Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud (head of the Saudi National Security Council). Dagan reportedly visited Saudi Arabia in 2010, and all of his successors appear to have done so as well.
The creeping normalization of relations entered a fifth phase which included allowing Air India planes to fly over Saudi territory en route to Israel as well as allowing Israeli passenger planes to fly over Saudi airspace. In addition, Israeli athletes are allowed to compete in international tournaments hosted by KSA, etc. The sixth phase of normalization is currently in force and should be final. This time, the Saudis and Israelis indulged in official diplomacy, but not directly, but through the US as an intermediary.
A rarely seen diplomatic offensive is taking place. This prompted Palestinian officials to rush to Riyadh to state their views on what the Saudis should represent in the negotiations. On the international scene, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farrakhan Al Saud, together with the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan, led an extraordinary meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in which as many as 50 foreign ministers participated, including Arab countries that do not they recognize Israel like Algeria, Kuwait and Qatar. The event aimed to promote a two-state solution (Israel and Palestine) based on the Arab Peace Initiative and create a “peace package” to be offered to Israelis and Palestinians.
The benefits of normalization
For Saudi Arabia, the agreement hinges on three main issues. First, the Saudis want a defense alliance with the US and formal US security guarantees against outside attacks, and they are primarily referring to Iran. Second, they want American support to develop their own nuclear program. The Saudis want nuclear energy for civilian as well as military purposes. The third issue is the issue of Palestine. Riyadh, of course, advocates a two-state solution.
As far as Israel is concerned, the normalization of relations with the Saudis would fundamentally reshape its place in the region and the Islamic world. The agreement would give an incentive to other Arab and Muslim countries to normalize their relations with the State of Israel. Furthermore, Israel could profit greatly from economic cooperation as it would gain access to Saudi oil and in return could offer its technology. Also, Israel would become part of the planned economic corridor by rail from India through the Middle East to Europe. For the US, the Israeli-Saudi deal would be seen as a major foreign policy victory, advancing regional integration by building on the Abraham Accords of September 2020, and would give momentum to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while reducing China’s growing influence in the region.
Challenges to the Israeli-Saudi agreement
However, there are major challenges to reaching an agreement among a triangle of states whose national interests are often incompatible. Certain US circles believe that the Saudi demand for American security guarantees carries more risks than benefits.
America’s agreement to protect the Saudi kingdom with American troops on the ground in the world’s most unstable region is contrary to the aspirations of the majority of American citizens who are rightly opposed to sending American troops to remote parts of the world. Therefore, such an American-Saudi agreement would certainly require the confirmation of the US Senate by a two-thirds majority, which should be supported by both Republicans and Democrats. This is unlikely, but a basic defense alliance between Washington and Riyadh is likely.
Israelis generally have no problem with the US militarily guaranteeing the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia as long as it does not threaten Israel militarily. The Saudi pursuit of uranium enrichment with minimal international oversight is hardly acceptable to the US, Israel and most of the international community, given the broad international consensus against the development of nuclear weapons, especially when it comes to the Middle East nuclear arms race. Furthermore, it is difficult to expect the Saudis to agree to distance themselves from Russia and China and to embrace human rights and democratic standards as a result of normalization. The Saudis want foreign policy independence and the ability to levitate between the great powers, while they despise true democracy. If they are already going to carry out political reforms on the internal level, then they carry them out on their own terms.
The Palestinian issue
The Palestinian issue is the issue of all issues on which Arabs and Israelis have not been able to find a common language for 70 years, and it will be the most difficult to incorporate it into an agreement. The Palestinian Authority has presented Washington and Riyadh with a list of demands they want to be met during negotiations on the normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations.
The Palestinians demand the reopening of the American consulate in East Jerusalem and the PLO office in Washington, raising the level of the Palestinian representative in the UN from observer to member, freezing the construction of new Israeli settlements, transferring the territory from zone C (under the complete control of Israel) to zone B (under Palestinian civilian control), etc. These are demands that the current Israeli government would oppose. Back in 2020, the UAE set as a condition for the normalization of relations with Israel the abandonment of the Israeli annexation of parts of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank.
The Biden administration is trying to force the Israelis to make concessions to the Palestinians as part of a potential deal, but Netanyahu is being constrained by his far-right coalition partners, who oppose any move toward strengthening Palestinian statehood, or international recognition of the State of Palestine. The Saudis themselves demanded numerous concessions from the Israelis towards the Palestinians. Mohammed bin Salman said in September that the Palestinian issue was still a “very important” component of the normalization process. The request of the Saudis and Americans that the Israelis directly or indirectly accept the two-state solution cannot pass considering the composition of the Israeli government and Knesset. On the other hand, if the Saudis were to agree to minor concessions from the Israelis to the Palestinians – instead of two states to limited Palestinian autonomy – it is likely that the Americans would not accept it. Considering such complicated circumstances, this process of normalization lay the foundations for the solution of the Palestinian issue in the future when a more moderate Israeli government is in power in Jerusalem. For their part, the Palestinians, seeking to mitigate potential losses and maximize potential gains, have pledged not to publicly criticize any potential deal.
Promising steps forward
Despite the problems, the three parties want to find a common language. In recent weeks, apparently, all parties have agreed to make compromises. In terms of the US security arrangement with Riyadh, the Americans seem to be looking for a solution similar to the US guarantees to South Korea and Japan, rather than the guarantees offered by NATO.
Regarding the Saudi nuclear program, the United States and Israel are working on a proposal that would entail acceptable international oversight. Also, a lot happened for the first time. Thus, the ambassador of KSA in the Palestinian Authority appeared for the first time in Ramallah, where he presented his credentials to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. For the first time, Israel sent an official delegation to Riyadh for a UN conference. The United States has finally granted Israelis a long-sought visa waiver to enter the US, confirming that Israel has met key requirements during a trial period, including allowing Americans of Palestinian descent to visit and move freely in Israel.
The significance of China for US-Saudi relations
It is clear to any rational observer of international relations that America’s main rival is China and that the Americans make all important international moves on an anti-Chinese basis whenever possible. They do this not only in the areas of Southeast Asia, but also in the areas of the Middle East, which was and remains important for the USA. In accordance with such a hostile American attitude towards China, the Americans want to use the Saudi-Israeli normalization of relations as a means of curbing China’s global influence.
The Chinese reconciliation of Iran and Saudi Arabia in March of this year greatly disturbed American policymakers, as well as the strengthening of China’s bilateral relations with numerous countries in the Middle East – Iran, UAE, Afghanistan. At the end of September, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad signed a “strategic partnership” with China while in Beijing, Kuwait’s crown prince visited Xi Jinping, and contracts worth 23.4 billion USD were signed at the 6th Sino-Arab trade expo in Yinchuan. Representatives of 60 countries, 220 foreign and 150 Chinese companies participated in that exhibition.
China has drastically strengthened its involvement in the Middle East in recent years, especially after the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan in the summer of 2021. The Chinese want to take advantage of the American withdrawal from the region in every possible way. Sino-Saudi relations have progressed strongly and the Saudis are using them to profit in their relationship with the USA. Riyadh is considering a Chinese offer to build a civilian nuclear power plant in the monarchy, disregarding the terms of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Washington has indicated that US nuclear assistance to the Saudis will be subject to the limitations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In December 2022, Xi traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he signed a number of bilateral agreements on technology, infrastructure and security. The Saudis will join BRICS on January 1, 2024, and Riyadh has already become a dialogue partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2021. During 2022, China was the largest buyer of Saudi oil. The Chinese and Saudis are considering trading oil in Chinese yuan, which has raised concerns in Washington. Since the 1970s, the Saudis have helped ensure the US dollar’s dominant status as a global currency by agreeing to trade oil in dollars.
In addition to oil, Sino-Saudi economic relations have seen a boom in recent years in construction, technology, and the military industry. Bin Salman appreciates China’s policy of non-interference in Saudi domestic affairs, especially in the context of tensions with the Biden administration over the monarchy’s human rights record. Accordingly, the Americans will do much to get S. Arabia out of China’s sphere of influence. The security guarantees that the Saudis are looking for are a big challenge for the US, which on the other hand is asking for less economic cooperation between the KSA and China, a Saudi guarantee that the Chinese will not build military bases there, limiting the use of Huawei and the continued use of the US dollar in oil trade. Although China seems to have power over Riyadh, the Saudis still consider America to be their strongest security partner, so a defense agreement with the US is unlikely.
The United States is considered by many analysts to be a declining power in the Middle East. For Biden, diplomatic normalization between the Saudis and Israelis is a much-coveted foreign policy victory as he heads into what will be a highly uncertain election year. Given that Beijing has reconciled Iran and Saudi Arabia, Washington wants a counterpart through the reconciliation of Israel and North Arabia. Although this is a process that will formally take place (at least it seems so at the time of writing in early October before the new round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict), the outcome of the Israeli-Saudi saga under American patronage is difficult to predict. In any case, it will be an irony of modern history that the Biden administration, which began its term with hostility towards Riyadh, ended its term by signing a defense agreement with Saudi Arabia. Credit for this should be attributed to the Ukrainian war and pressures on the oil market. The greatest danger is that normalization will be a pyrrhic victory and all key problems will remain open except resistance to Iran, which is wholeheartedly supported by Jerusalem, Riyadh and Washington. Undoubtedly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain an open question with no solution in sight.