Is Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization ‘ready for prime time’?

Dennis Ross: “Is there a possibility of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia?  Yes, but one should not exaggerate the near-term chances.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – In the eight weeks since the Israeli elections, there has been growing speculation that normalization between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia might be back on the table.

Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot reported talks were underway between Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia with respect to a normalization deal between the Jewish state and the Gulf country.

Richard Goldberg, the senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said we’ve “definitely seen the Biden administration pivot toward embracing the Abraham Accords over the last few months – something we didn’t see in the president’s first year.” Last week, Goldberg hosted Benjamin Netanyahu on his podcast, where the prime minister-designate said he would love to see full normalization between the countries.

Last week, Goldberg hosted Benjamin Netanyahu in his podcast, where the incoming prime minister said he would love to see a full normalization between the country.

“Since the White House hasn’t been able to jump-start the US-Saudi relationship or provide any clear wins for the Palestinians, the administration might view Saudi-Israel normalization talks as a way to do both,” Goldberg said.

“Since the White House hasn't been able to jumpstart the US-Saudi relationship or provide any clear wins for the Palestinians, the administration might view Saudi-Israel normalization talks as a way to do both.”

Richard Goldberg

 Saudi Arabia's national flag is seen at the Khoba frontline border with Yemen (credit: REUTERS/FAHAD SHADEED) Saudi Arabia's national flag is seen at the Khoba frontline border with Yemen (credit: REUTERS/FAHAD SHADEED)

Is US support needed for Israel-Saudi normalization?

Some media reports suggested that such progress would also be linked to possible support from the US, such as approving the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the kingdom. According to Goldberg, “A lot will depend on what assurances MBS [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] is willing to provide the United States and Israel.

“Normalizing relations with Israel would be a strategic game changer, as it was for the UAE. But Washington also needs assurances that Riyadh will stop playing military and nuclear footsie with Beijing,” he noted.

For the long-term stability of the Middle East, the US has an enormous amount to gain, he added.

“Saudi-Israel normalization will be the linchpin to regional economic integration and counter-extremism – in addition to formalizing a security architecture to deter and eventually defeat the Islamic Republic of Iran without drawing American military resources away from much-needed deterrence in the Asia-Pacific theater.”

Goldberg also said the incoming government in Israel won’t be an obstacle in this regard. “Netanyahu and MBS gave birth to the Abraham Accords -- they have a level of trust that cannot be matched,” Goldberg said. “If anything, the incoming government gives MBS the opportunity to claim greater victories in a normalization deal -- much as the UAE spun a victory in 2020.”

“Netanyahu and MBS gave birth to the Abraham Accords. They have a level of trust that cannot be matched,” he said. “If anything, the incoming government gives MBS the opportunity to claim greater victories in a normalization deal – much as the UAE spun a victory in 2020,” he said.

“In MBS and Bibi, you have the two leaders in place who can deliver on normalization. The question though is what that normalization will look like at first,” Goldberg continued. “Is it a formal signing ceremony at the White House? Or is it a series of important breakthroughs that cumulatively lead to normalization over time? As Netanyahu made clear in a recent interview, he’ll go as big as MBS will allow – even if that means starting with trade offices or Saudi commercial and tourism zones where Israelis can regularly travel.”

AARON DAVID MILLER, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said, “When the meeting between an Israeli prime minister and a Saudi crown prince or king happens, it will not be the first time it has occurred.”

Miller likened the Israeli-Saudi relationship to an iceberg. “Most of what’s interesting on the intelligence-security side and the meetings with senior Israeli officials is occurring below the waterline. We never see it,” he said. “But there’s no doubt that there’s a serious foundation that links these two countries together. The public aspect is the Abraham Accords, of course. But what’s underneath and what’s driving this relationship is a couple of things that are indigenous to the region. First, the clear reality is both countries are fundamentally concerned and worried about Iran. Second, is the rise of Sunni jihadis, Islamic State, [or] al-Qaeda elements.”

There is also an exhaustion and frustration with the Palestinian issue, Miller said. “So, what’s occurring between Israel and Saudi Arabia is real, and it’s enduring.”

He noted that the US has an important role to play in bringing the two countries together.

“Part of the alignment that has occurred between Israel and the Emiratis, the Bahrainis and the Saudis has a lot to do with the repositioning of the United States,” Miller said. When a great power decides that it has de-prioritized the region, which the United States is doing, there is a great concern on the part of Israel and the Gulf states.”

Miller added that the Emiratis have set the bar very high – a new set of relationships that go beyond a simple exchange of ambassadors and embassies.

“I think Mr. Netanyahu imagines a much more robust relationship with Saudi Arabia. Whether it could go as far as the Emirates, it is unclear,” said Miller. “[But] that’s really what we’re talking about.”

However, he noted that his sense of the case in this normalization is that “this process is not ready for prime time.”

Israel-Saudi ties not ready for prime time?

“There are several reasons why. First, there is the constraint on the accession and whether or not MBS would be able to do this without full authority as a king,” Miller said.

“Second, you’ve got the most right-wing government in Israel’s history emerging.”

A third constraint, he said, is that the US-Saudi relationship is “as dysfunctional as I’ve seen it in the past six administrations” as the countries are divided on many issues, from human rights to oil production and the relationship with China. “The sun, the moon and the stars are just not aligned right now.”

Dennis Ross, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, weighed in as well.

“Is there a possibility of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia? Yes, but one should not exaggerate the near-term chances,” Ross said.

“Is there a possibility of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia?  Yes, but one should not exaggerate the near-term chances.”

Dennis Ross

“MBS has been clear with many visitors about what is important to him to move on normalization. Put simply, he needs a number of commitments from the US that would provide greater certainty about its security and the nature of American support.

“Normalizing with Israel would increase Iranian threats to Saudi Arabia,” Ross continued. “MBS clearly wants more of a set of formal security assurances. This is less about F-35s and more about formalized commitments.”

He said the administration, knowing the mood in Congress and its own instincts, “is not inclined to make such commitments at this point.”

“If incoming PM Netanyahu wants to press for normalization, he will have to work with President Biden and Democrats and Republicans in Congress to make the case why this is important to the Middle East and the longer-term geopolitical competition with China and Russia,” Ross said.

“Moreover, while the Saudis are not preoccupied with the Palestinians, there are realities that would make it difficult for MBS to move ahead. Changing the status quo on the Temple Mount would produce an emotional backlash from Arab publics, including the Saudi public,” he noted. “Similarly, Israeli moves toward annexation would also affect things negatively. The Palestinians don’t drive Saudi policy, and there is no desire to let the Palestinians deny Saudi Arabia what its interests require, but they also cannot be wished away. There certainly is an American role in mediating between the Israelis and Saudis.”

“Similarly, Israeli moves toward annexation would also affect things negatively. The Palestinians don’t drive Saudi policy and there is no desire to let the Palestinians deny Saudi Arabia what its interests require, but they also cannot be wished away. There certainly is an American role in mediating between the Israelis and Saudis, and the Administration could clearly become more active, but it needs to recognize going in what MBS will require.” 

Daniel Shapiro, former US ambassador to Israel and a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, said “normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia is, to use an inapt metaphor, the Holy Grail.”

“Normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia is, to use an inapt metaphor, the Holy Grail.”

Daniel Shapiro

“It would be transformational for the region. And it should be in Israeli, Saudi, and US interests to achieve it,” Shapiro added. “But aligning all sides, and expectations will be devilishly difficult. Saudi Arabia will seek weapons, security guarantees and civil nuclear energy technology from the United States.”

All these will be unpopular for Biden to provide in light of recent US-Saudi tensions, but Israel may actively lobby for them, he said.

“And both the US and Saudi Arabia will seek steps by Israel to preserve the possibility of a future two-state solution with the Palestinians. But Netanyahu’s coalition partners are determined to bury that possibility once and for all. So arranging the three sides of the triangle may require not just geometry but tremendous creativity, and perhaps a bit of alchemy.”