A flurry of dramatic headlines in recent weeks speculated that a peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel was imminent.
Fueling the speculation, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told several news outlets over the weekend that normalization with Saudi Arabia could even happen within six months. And Israel’s Channel 12 reported on Monday that Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani facilitated phone calls between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the last few weeks.
But it seemed that for every optimistic headline, another news article indicated that normalized diplomatic relations still remain a long way off.
On May 19 during his address at the Arab League summit, MBS reiterated the standard position of the kingdom that “the Palestinian issue was and remains the central issue for Arab countries, and it is at the top of the kingdom’s priorities.”
“We will not delay in providing assistance to the Palestinian people in recovering their lands, restoring their legitimate rights, and establishing an independent state on the 1967 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital,” he said.
Expectations running high for Saudi to join Abraham Accords
Since the inception of the Abraham Accords—the historic normalization agreements between Israel and four Arab nations—expectations have run high that Saudi Arabia would join.
But the Saudis are going in the opposite direction, said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project and Middle East expert. Riedel believes any such normalization is not nearly as close as some have hinted.
“The Saudis welcomed [Syrian President Bashar] Assad to Jeddah, not Netanyahu. They are reconciling with Iran, not Israel,” he told The Media Line. “They’re not going to engage Israel publicly until there is a Palestinian state.”
The Abraham Accords were seen as a strategic alliance against a common enemy: the Islamic Republic of Iran, a Shia nation at odds with the Sunni Gulf states and running a proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
This all seemed to change, however, when China initiated a détente process between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March. Shortly after, the UAE and Iran opened up a business council as well.
These new alliances with Iran threaten Netanyahu’s efforts to isolate Tehran in the region and gnaw at expectations that the Abraham Accords are ready to expand.
Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist, dismisses the positive headlines as an "obfuscation."
“If you read the Jeddah communique and saw the space, the number of words and the placement of ‘Palestine’ and ‘Jerusalem’ in that statement issued in Saudi, what the Saudis are suggesting and what they want, then the claims of near normalization are generally untrue,” he told The Media Line. “Maybe there are attempts, but there is clearly no way that the Saudis—who came up with the Arab peace plan which was again reiterated in Jeddah and which calls for no normalization without withdrawal—you would realize that Saudis would not have reiterated support for it if they had any plans to violate it.”
Some of the optimism stems from the possibility of the Saudis allowing direct flights from Tel Aviv to Saudi Arabia for Muslim Israelis who wish to make the hajj to Mecca in June.
But it is exactly issues like this that are leading to a de facto normalization albeit without the fanfare, said Yechiel M. Leiter, director-general of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who does not view the recent détente as Saudi Arabia choosing Iran over Israel.
“There is an awful lot of normalization that can go on that does not include ceremony,” he told The Media Line.
He noted that ongoing unofficial cooperation on security, permission for Israel to use Saudi airspace, and possible direct flights next month don’t need formal relations.
“The fact that they have a rapprochement with Iran has a lot more to do with the United States stepping back,” Leiter said.
Rapprochement with Israel will likely not take on the form of a ceremonious signing on the south lawn of the White House as with the Abraham Accords in 2020.
“The substantial aspect of normalization is going to come incrementally. It’s MBS’s pattern even within Saudi Arabia’s domestic affairs. There’s no reason to assume that normalization with Israel is not going to be incremental,” Leiter continued. “Saudi Arabia is the titular head of the Arab and Muslim worlds and any agreement with Israel has to be understood in those epic proportions and not just a simple technical, logistical peace signing.”
But if there will be a ceremony, Leiter predicted, it would likely be closer to the American election cycle—either the Democratic primaries or the formal announcement of US President Joe Biden’s campaign.
Coinciding with other overtures toward Israel, ongoing reforms of the nation’s school curriculum also show positive changes. Saudi textbooks, which traditionally demonized Israel and the Zionist movement, now show a near complete elimination of criticism of the Jewish people and anti-Semitic references, according to a report released this week by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se).
IMPACT-se COO Arik Agassi noted that while the overall positive changes in the education system weren’t made only in regard to Israel, they show that “the Palestinian conflict is not the most important issue in the region.”
“In our view, these reforms are for the good of the Saudis, it’s good for their vision,” Agassi told The Media Line. “It’s a signal to even further change. It’s a trend line.