Is a formal Israeli-Saudi agreement achievable?

The Abraham Accords, as well as additional steps on the part of Saudi Arabia, will illustrate the changes that have taken place in the region in the last decade.

 BAHRAIN’S FOREIGN Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani and then-foreign minister Yair Lapid meet at The Negev Summit, also attended by the US, UAE, Morocco and Egypt, last year. It’s likely the UAE and Bahrain received the OK from Riyadh to sign the Abraham Accords, says the writer.  (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
BAHRAIN’S FOREIGN Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani and then-foreign minister Yair Lapid meet at The Negev Summit, also attended by the US, UAE, Morocco and Egypt, last year. It’s likely the UAE and Bahrain received the OK from Riyadh to sign the Abraham Accords, says the writer.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

In recent days we have come across reports in the media, about talks promoting a possible Israeli-Saudi agreement, which took place between Israel and Saudi Arabia, even before the establishment of the new government. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu devoted a significant part of the interview he gave on December 15 to Al-Arabiya, a Saudi television network, to explain that his main course of action will be to promote a move along the lines of the Abraham Accords, with Saudi Arabia.

He emphasized that an agreement of this kind will strengthen the firm regional stance against Iran, contribute to stability in the region, and even help advance a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It should be noted that this interview was done as part of an attempt on Netanyahu’s part – including in interviews he gave to American media – to calm regional and international public opinion about the composition of his new government. It is doubtful whether those efforts were successful, but the main and most interesting question is; can it be expected that such an ambitious move will actually take off?

Truth be told, the Abraham Accords, (it is likely that the UAE and Bahrain received a “green light” from Riyadh to sign) as well as additional steps on the part of Saudi Arabia (for example, giving permission to Israeli planes to fly over its airspace), will illustrate the changes that have taken place in the region in the last decade.

The main changes were: the consolidation of the perception of the Iranian threat toward the Gulf countries; a decrease of the Palestinian issue in the order of priorities among the countries of the region; and the feeling (whether accurate or more a perception) of erosion of the degree of American commitment to stand by its allies in the region.

 AFTER SIGNING the Abraham Accords, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of Bahrain (left) and UAE display their copies as then-US president Donald Trump looks on, at the White House, September 15, 2020. (credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS) AFTER SIGNING the Abraham Accords, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of Bahrain (left) and UAE display their copies as then-US president Donald Trump looks on, at the White House, September 15, 2020. (credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)

It should be noted that a public opinion poll conducted in Saudi Arabia in November, published by the Washington Institute last month, brought up some very interesting findings. The survey included 1,000 respondents, who were all interviewed personally.

In relation to the US, for the first time in a decade, it was relegated to the third most important country for Saudi Arabia. Of the respondents, 57% rated relations with China as “important,” 53% thought the same about relations with Russia, and only 41% preferred to have a relationship with the US. At the same time, 73% of respondents defined the war in Ukraine as “having a negative effect on the region.”

The findings regarding Israel are no less interesting. 43% of respondents support ongoing contact with Israel (no details were given regarding this, but in recent times Saudi Arabia has hosted a senior banking conference with the participation of an Israeli representative, as well as hosting an Israeli team in an international sports event).

On the other hand, only 21% of the respondents believed that the Abraham Accords had a positive impact on the region. Furthermore, 90% of the respondents believed that the results of the elections in Israel would cause “negative results in the region.”

NATURALLY, PUBLIC opinion polls of this kind should be viewed very carefully, especially in a country like Saudi Arabia. Still, they do have the potential to give a sense of the general way of thinking on these matters. It should also be taken into account that the research institute in question is considered close to Israel.

It should be emphasized that Netanyahu highlighted in his interview with the Saudi television channel that he will work to strengthen US relations with its allies in the region. He also implied that he will take it upon himself, in one way or another, to work with the White House on relations with Saudi Arabia. It is no secret that the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia has not been at its best in recent years, despite efforts by President Biden to restore it.

Either way, the questions which remain regarding the prospects for improving the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia are clear and understandable. From Netanyahu’s point of view, there is a great deal of logic in trying to promote this historic move, and to prove that it is possible to reverse the commonly held belief, that Israeli-Arab normalization can only be achieved in relation to progress in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. 

The Abraham Accords proved that this is possible, and an Israeli-Saudi agreement will provide the ultimate guarantee for this.

However, questions are focused, of course, on Saudi Arabia:

  • Will such a move indeed be perceived in Riyadh as serving Saudi interests?
  • Is there anything in it, in their view, to strengthen their position and deter the growing Iranian challenge?
  • Does Netanyahu have the ability to deliver to the Democratic American administration, as their relationship is not great to say the least?
  • And does Saudi Arabia feel that it has the ability to bypass the Palestinian issue once again, without harming its regional position, and especially stability in the internal arena?

Indeed, there are many questions, to which it is clear that there are no reliable answers, certainly not at this stage. By the way, Netanyahu was asked several times during the interview with Al-Arabiya, whether Israel would act against Iran, even without American backing or consent. He failed to provide an explicit answer, as expected, but mentioned the operation that brought the Iranian nuclear archive to Israel. The same was asked in relation to the Arab (Saudi) peace initiative, and not surprisingly, a clear answer was avoided. 

It is worth mentioning in this context that in the past, during Netanyahu’s previous government, speculation abounded concerning Israel’s willingness to give a bigger role to Riyadh in Jerusalem and the Holy Sites. However, these questions during the interview illustrate the issues that both interest and trouble the Saudis.

From a certain point of view

FROM NETANYAHU’S point of view, there is solid logic in marking this as the main course of action in the “political plan” he is outlining for his new government. It can also be assumed that he sees Ron Dermer, who was a central figure around the Abraham Accords, albeit with the Trump administration, as an essential factor in this context.

Still, it is not clear how it will work, if at all, with a Democratic administration in the White House and especially after the damage Netanyahu’s previous government caused to Israeli-US relations.

As for Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, he would prefer to wait and see which policies the new government in Israel will implement, especially when taking in consideration its unprecedented character. It remains to be seen how the Palestinian arena will react, especially when Mahmoud Abbas’s PA is in crisis.

Moreover, King Abdullah of Jordan’s interview just a few days ago in which he emphasized his kingdom’s role in the Holy places in Jerusalem, indicates how sensitive and acute the issue of Jerusalem is, not only for Israel, but also for the Arab world as a whole, not least because of the Saudi ambitions for a central role there. 

Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount on Tuesday only serves to increase tensions.

The writer has served in a range of diplomatic roles, including ambassador to Cyprus, and positions in Cairo and London, and was director of the Foreign Ministry’s department responsible for the Palestinian arena and Jordan. Currently, he lectures in the Political Science Department at the Jezreel Valley College and is a policy fellow at Mitvim Institute.