Israel and Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic relations with each other – a situation that normally means hostility between nations. Yet on March 3, 2022, Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) said: “We don’t look at Israel as an enemy.” It was scarcely a surprising remark, since for several years extensive behind-the-scenes diplomatic and intelligence cooperation between the two countries has been an open secret, including a covert visit to Saudi Arabia in November 2020 by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
MBS went on to describe Israel as “a potential ally, with many interests we can pursue together. But,” he added, “we have to solve some issues before we get to that.”
What are the issues that inhibit Saudi Arabia from joining its main Gulf allies —the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain — in normalizing relations with Israel, as those Gulf states did in September 2020 in the Abraham Accords?
One main consideration is that Saudi Arabia, guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, is viewed by vast numbers of Muslims the world over as the custodian of Islamic values. Inevitably this makes the idea of normalization with Israel a more sensitive issue for Saudi than for other Gulf states. However there would be nothing shocking or unprecedented in Saudi Arabia taking this step. The precedent has been set with the Abraham Accords.
Another restraining factor is that Saudi’s King Salman is acutely aware that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative was conceived and proposed by his half-brother (and predecessor on the throne), then-Crown Prince Abdullah. The Plan, endorsed on three occasions by the Arab League, advocates a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute, requiring the establishment of a sovereign Palestine on territories overrun by Israel during the Six-Day War, namely the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Given that, and a just resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue, the Plan promises full normalization of relations between the Muslim world and Israel.
In his address to the UN General Assembly in September 2021, Salman – ignoring the fact that the Abraham Accords have breached the one-time Muslim consensus on the Initiative – again committed Saudi Arabia to it, asserting that it offers a “comprehensive and just solution” to the Palestine-Israel conflict
More recently MBS, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, and other Saudi spokespeople, have not referred to the Initiative, but all have said repeatedly that normalization would not be possible until the Israel-Palestine dispute is resolved.
“The priority now,” Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud told Hebrew-language newspaper Maariv recently, “is to find an arrangement so that Israelis and Palestinians can sit together and have a peace process…This will make it easier for all countries that do not yet have relations with Israel. For us, this will happen when a just solution is found.”
He went on to acknowledge: “The integration of Israel in the region will be a huge benefit not only for Israel itself but for the entire region.”
Yet MBS must be aware that the Palestinian Authority’s advocacy of the two-state solution is not its real objective. The true aim of the Palestinian leadership, like that of Hamas and a substantial proportion of Palestinian opinion, is to remove Israel and acquire the whole of mandate Palestine “from the river to the sea”. It is an objective repeated again and again to the domestic audience.
However the two-state tactic is itself a flimsy device. Supporting the concept fulfils a useful public relations function, but no Palestinian leader would be foolhardy enough to sign up to two states, which is why every attempt at a peace deal over the years – and there have been many – has foundered. Acknowledging Israel’s legal rights in the region would bring a charge of treachery to the Palestinian cause down on his head. Hamas would exclude Gaza from any such deal, and internal political upheaval might well follow. Yet along with the UN, the EU and much of the Western world, the official Saudi line is to persist in believing that an Israel-Palestinian deal which recognizes Israel’s legitimate status in the region is a practical possibility.
All four Muslim states that have so far signed up to the Abraham Accords maintain their support for Palestinian aspirations, but they have decided that solving the intractable Israel-Palestinian dispute should no longer be a pre-requisite for normalizing relations with Israel. They will support efforts to reach an accord, but they prioritize developing a flourishing Middle East for the benefit of all its citizens.
Each of the four had particular reasons for joining the Accords. The UAE is intent on countering the regional dominance sought by Iran and Turkey, but it is also developing commercial and hi-tech scientific links with Israel, increasing defense cooperation, and obtaining from Washington weapon systems like the F-35 fifth-generation fighter jet. Bahrain, too – its leaders Sunni, its population majority Shia – appreciates Israel’s strength in opposing not only Iran, but also the violent extremist groups supported by Iran in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. On joining the Accords Sudan was removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, while Morocco gained US recognition of its claims over Western Sahara.
When Saudi Arabia weighs the pros and cons of normalizing its relationship with Israel, or formally joining the Abraham Accords, Israel’s determination to counter Iran’s ambitions to dominate the Middle East would be a major consideration. MBS would also hope the move would help repair Saudi’s strained relations with Washington. The murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. continues to reverberate in US political circles. Normalizing relations with Israel could change perceptions about Saudi Arabia in both main parties, and help restore MBS’s status among the US elite.
So MBS has been careful to keep the normalization option open. Far from condemning its neighboring Gulf states, Saudi Arabia has signaled tacit support for the UAE and Bahrain. It has allowed unprecedented access to Saudi airspace for Israeli commercial planes, and reports of high-level meetings between Saudi and Israeli representatives continue to appear in the media. It was no doubt a source of regret that it could not participate along with the UAE and Bahrain in the so-called Negev Summit on 28 March.
The omens for Saudi Arabia and Israel soon formalizing what is already something close to a partnership seem good.