Resolving the Israel-Saudi deadlock

What are the issues that inhibit Saudi Arabia from joining its main Gulf allies, the UAE and Bahrain, in normalizing relations with Israel? 

 Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jeddah on June 7, 2023.  (photo credit: Amer Hilabi/Pool/REUTERS)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jeddah on June 7, 2023.
(photo credit: Amer Hilabi/Pool/REUTERS)

The idea that Saudi Arabia would be the next Arab state to sign up to the Abraham Accords is as old as the Accords themselves. It surfaced within hours of the signing of the agreement on the White House lawn by Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on September 15, 2020.

Then-US president Donald Trump told reporters, in a press conference following the signing, that he had spoken with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, and he believed that the kingdom would shortly follow suit. That statement turned the tap on what became an unceasing flow of speculation about when the magic moment might arrive.

The issue remains as alive today as ever. Just a few weeks ago Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, said that normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia is just a “matter of time.” It was not a question of if, he maintained, but of when.

Cohen dismissed the recent reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran – which some believed ruled out Saudi-Israel normalization – as nothing more than “a façade.” Pointing out that Saudi Arabia and Israel are one in considering Iran to be an existential enemy, he said the reality is that the Saudis would do anything to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

It is no secret that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has always given high priority to convincing Saudi Arabia to sign up to the Accords. Back in November 2020, he made what was meant to be a secret trip to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known colloquially by his initials MBS), the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia – a trip that soon became public knowledge.

  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Netanyahu has pushed that policy ever since. In a speech on February 19 he said he was still actively trying to persuade Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords as that would constitute a “quantum leap” towards regional peace.

Netanyahu has striven hard to get the US administration on board. Joe Biden came to the US presidency still wedded to the Obama strategy of appeasing Iran in the hope of getting it to re-enter the failed nuclear deal. Moreover, Biden had no wish to engage with MBS, whom he believed responsible for masterminding the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Washington has slowly retreated from both positions. The nuclear deal with Iran is now dead in the water and senior Biden administration figures and US Senators have been speaking to MBS about normalizing relations with Israel and signing the Abraham Accords. Yet, despite efforts going back nearly four years, Israel and Saudi Arabia remain deadlocked on the issue of formal normalization.

SOME GREEN shoots are in evidence. Although the two countries still have no diplomatic relations, on March 3, 2022, 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 them has been an open secret.

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.”

Why can't Saudi Arabia normalize ties with Israel?

What are the issues that inhibit Saudi Arabia from joining its main Gulf allies, the UAE and Bahrain, in normalizing relations with Israel?

The biggest obstacle, perhaps, is that Saudi’s King Salman is acutely aware that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative was conceived and proposed by his predecessor on the throne, then-crown prince Abdullah, his half-brother. The plan, endorsed on a number of occasions by the Arab League, advocates a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute. Given the establishment of a sovereign Palestine on territories overrun by Israel during the Six-Day War, and a just resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue, the plan promises full normalization of relations between the Muslim world and Israel.

In September 2021 King Salman addressed the UN General Assembly. In his speech he reiterated Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the 2002 Plan, completely disregarding the fact that the one-time Arab consensus – no normalization with Israel before a Palestinian state – had been breached. Four Arab states had ignored it. A precedent had been set.

Yet Saudi Arabia has remained consistent. MBS and other Saudi spokespeople have recently repeated that normalization with Israel would not be possible until the Israel-Palestine situation is resolved or at least, in a phrase increasingly being used, “progress has been made” in resolving the dispute.

In a TV interview on January 19, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al Saud, Saudi’s foreign minister, once again repeated the traditional Saudi stance.

“We have said consistently that we believe normalization with Israel is something that is very much in the interest of the region,” he said.

“However, true normalization and true stability will only come through giving the Palestinians hope, through giving the Palestinians dignity. That requires giving the Palestinians a state, and that’s the priority.”

The same message emerged from the recent Arab League summit. A closing statement issued on May 19 reaffirmed that the Palestinian cause remains the central issue for Arab nations and a key factor for regional stability.

That must have disappointed Netanyahu, who had spoken by phone with MBS before the conference to discuss the possibility of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. He and MBS spoke to each other again after the meeting, and the issue, still unresolved, remains on the table.

A major difficulty with the League’s position is in defining what precisely is “the Palestinian cause.”

For 20 years the Arab League, led by Saudi Arabia, has maintained that the two-state solution, as set out in the Arab Peace Initiative, must be a prerequisite for normalization with Israel. But what is rarely taken sufficiently into account is how the Palestinian leadership as a whole views the two-state solution.

IN THE world of Palestinian politics, paying lip-service to a two-state solution is understood to be only a tactic, a stepping stone. The true Palestinian cause, right across the political spectrum, is to gain control of the whole of Mandatory Palestine, “from the river to the sea.”

Moderates and extremists differ only on what tactics are acceptable to achieve the objective. Hamas rejects the very idea of a two-state solution. It came into being to destroy Israel.

The original Arab Peace Initiative, of course, was drafted well before Hamas gained control of Gaza in 2007.

The situation today is radically different from what it was in 2002. The Palestinian people are now split. The proportion supporting the Hamas agenda – perhaps up to half the Palestinian population both within and outside the Gaza Strip – would never subscribe to a two-state solution. Hamas regards Israel as interlopers on Palestinian land and aims to overthrow it.

World opinion, including Saudi Arabia, that supports the two-state solution needs to face up to some awkward truths. In order to achieve it, any Palestinian leader agreeing to endorse Israel’s right to exist would require substantial support from within the Arab world. In addition truly tough sanctions would need to be in place against extremist bodies like Hamas who would be bound to oppose it.

The conclusion? The two-state solution is a non-starter until a substantial element within the Palestinian leadership acknowledges that the State of Israel is here to stay and endorses its legitimacy. Since Saudi Arabia and the Arab world believe in the two-state solution, the ball is in their court. Only they can bring the more moderate Palestinian leadership to the negotiating table and circumvent or disempower rejectionists like Hamas.

If that is too great an ask, then Saudi Arabia will need to consider aligning its position with that of other Abraham Accord signatories. All maintain their support for Palestinian aspirations, but not at the expense of their self-interests. They have decided to prioritize the substantial benefits to their countries and the region of normalizing relations with Israel – and evidence of those benefits grows stronger day by day. ■

The writer’s latest book is: “Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020”. Follow him at: