Progress in Saudi-Israeli relations does not mean normalization

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: A secret meeting between Israeli and Saudi officials is in the works.

 US SECRETARY of State Antony Blinken and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud arrive to deliver remarks to reporters before meeting at the State Department in October. (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)
US SECRETARY of State Antony Blinken and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud arrive to deliver remarks to reporters before meeting at the State Department in October.
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

Nearly two years after the Abraham Accords were announced, in which Israel established diplomatic relations with four Arab states, normalization with the “crown jewel,” as many Israelis have referred to Saudi Arabia, remains elusive.

Though recent weeks have seen a flurry of good news about Israel and Saudi Arabia, diplomatic ties between the countries remain unlikely in the short term.

A secret meeting between Israeli and Saudi officials, focused on economic and defense matters, is in the works, which, according to Globes, may even include signing agreements to cooperate in medical, agricultural and energy research.

More Israelis than ever before have been permitted to visit the kingdom to conduct business with special visas in recent months, with some even flying their private jets directly from Ben-Gurion Airport to Riyadh this week. Saudi Arabia also hosted a multi-faith gathering that included an Israeli rabbi last month.

All this is happening as the US has been trying to mediate the finalization of a transfer of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, in the Strait of Tiran, from Egyptian to Saudi Arabian hands.

 TOURISTS ARE seen on a beach in the Aqaba Gulf in front of the island of Tiran. Could its transfer from Saudi Arabia to Egypt help trigger a deal between Saudi and Israel? (credit: AMR ABDALLAH DALSH / REUTERS) TOURISTS ARE seen on a beach in the Aqaba Gulf in front of the island of Tiran. Could its transfer from Saudi Arabia to Egypt help trigger a deal between Saudi and Israel? (credit: AMR ABDALLAH DALSH / REUTERS)

Egypt agreed in principle, in 2018, to transfer control of the islands, which are strategically located at the opening of the Red Sea. Former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser used the islands to block commercial shipping to Eilat, leading to the 1967 Six Day War. As such, the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel included an article requiring the Strait of Tiran to be international waters, and for the islands to be demilitarized. A multinational force patrols the islands.

For Egypt to grant control of the islands to Saudi Arabia, Israel would need the latter to agree to the terms delineated in the peace agreement. The Saudis don’t want a multinational force on the islands anymore, Israel wants to see other security options if the patrols end, and the Biden administration views this as an opening to improve relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh.

Israel is also trying to leverage the situation to allow direct flights to Saudi Arabia that would ease Israeli Muslims’ pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, as well as for more Israeli airlines to be able to cross over Saudi airspace for flights to Asian destinations.

US-Saudi relations

US-Saudi relations deteriorated under the Biden administration, with US President Joe Biden saying Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) should be a “pariah” due to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were so disappointed with Washington’s response to Iranian proxy attacks on them that their leaders snubbed calls from Biden at the outset of the Russia-Ukraine war. Gulf states have not agreed to increase oil production or sell surplus oil to make up for banned Russian oil.

Biden is likely to visit Riyadh on his trip to the Middle East at the end of the month, which is planned to start in Jerusalem. Israel and the Tiran and Sanafir islands issue are small cogs in the broader US-Saudi story, but they are an opening for lower-tension engagement between the sides.

THIS WHOLE situation has led to breathlessly excited headlines like “Biden can navigate Mideast peace through the Straits of Tiran” in The Hill this week.

Yet the Saudis continue to make it very clear that they are not ready to establish diplomatic relations with Israel unless there is progress on the Palestinian front.

This may be hard for some to accept, because it goes against one of the positive (for Israel) messages of the Abraham Accords – that, as a close aide to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett liked to say, “the Palestinians cannot have veto power over Israel’s foreign policy.” But that is the reality.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said that “the integration of Israel in the region will be a huge benefit not only for Israel but for the entire region. But without addressing the core problems of the Palestinian people and granting respect and sovereignty to the Palestinian people through the establishment of a Palestinian state, the instability and threats to Israel’s security and the entire region’s security will continue.

“We have always seen normalization as the end result for a path [to peace],” with the Palestinians, bin Farhan said, echoing what has been Saudi policy for 20 years, since the kingdom published its peace plan.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, the only rabbi with a column in a Saudi newspaper, Arab News, who has long been involved in Jewish engagement in the Gulf and nascent Israeli ties with Arab states, warned against being “overly euphoric” on the Israeli-Saudi front.

“The Saudi leadership has been very consistent in making the point... that there will be no talk of establishing diplomatic relations with Israel until there is some engagement between Israel and the Palestinians,” Schneier said this week. “I heard this from everyone, from the foreign minister to the crown prince. That is a definitive requirement – engagement, not necessarily a resolution.

“There are pundits out there that don’t want to hear what [the Saudis are] saying.... There’s all this euphoria, but to me it’s the same old,” he added.

In recent years, the Saudis have been willing to cooperate with Israel on economics, medicine and technology, and the latest advancements have been in that vein, Schneier said.

“The very top Saudi leadership’s preoccupation is what is known as Vision 2030, the transformation of the Saudi economy and lowering its dependence on oil, and I heard from the crown prince that ‘when it comes to Vision 2030, we will not succeed without Israel,’” he said.

Schneier also pointed out that Israel has been part of talks about the Tiran and Sanafir islands for years.

As such, more business and more flights are progress, “but I don’t believe it’ll translate into diplomatic relations,” Schneier said.

Israeli officials have relayed a similar message – don’t get too excited about Saudi-Israel relations.

“It’s a process and it takes time.”

President Isaac Herzog

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid contrasted the slow process with Saudi Arabia with the Abraham Accords, in an interview with the Magazine.

“The Abraham Accords were an explosion, and the year afterward, I spent the first three months of being foreign minister on a plane, going to open embassies in places we never dreamed of opening embassies,” Lapid said. “With Saudi Arabia, if it will happen, it’ll happen with baby steps. But I think some of those steps are being taken. I think that the American administration... is game for this process. And we appreciate that.”