Whereas Saudi Arabia has long adopted peace with Israel as a strategic objective, statements and early policies of the current Israeli government suggest that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim to prioritize the establishment of relations with the kingdom is detached from reality.
The announcement in 2002 by then-Saudi king Abdullah that Saudi Arabia would recognize Israel if it returned to the 1967 borders and agreed to a Palestinian state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital is still on the table and the basis for what has become the Arab Peace Initiative (API). As reiterated during countless meetings of the Arab League and most recently by Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the API remains the only credible mechanism by which to achieve a permanent and comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and the wider Arab and Muslim worlds.
The celebrated conclusion of the Abraham Accords was broadly taken as an indication that the API was no longer viable and that normalization with Israel can be pursued independently of developments in the Palestinian territories and Jerusalem holy sites. It has taken an 11-day crisis in Jerusalem, Gaza and elsewhere during May 2021; tensions in and around al-Aqsa during the convergence of Islam’s holy Ramadan and the Jewish Passover a year later; current concerns with more provocations by Jewish extremists when the holidays converge again in a few weeks; and particularly the new Netanyahu government with its extremist ministers taking office to send a sobering message to Abraham Accords signatories and others.
Indeed, three successive Israeli prime ministers – Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid (and now, again Netanyahu) – have received similar messages from recent normalizers, as well as the older peace partners, Egypt and Jordan, whereby progress on bilateral relations cannot be completely decoupled from events in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Specifically, we heard from Israeli, American and Arab sources that during the May 2021 crisis, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s then-defense minister, received several calls from his Emirati counterpart urging restraint. While not presuming to advise Israel on how to defend itself, the message from Abu Dhabi was clear: under such circumstances, it becomes increasingly difficult to defend normalization proceeding as desired.
Subsequently, when visiting Bahrain in February 2022, then-prime minister Bennett received a similar message, as did his foreign minister Lapid a month later, during the inaugural meeting of the Negev Forum. Most recently, these concerns seem to have been at play when last month, Netanyahu’s first-ever visit to the UAE was postponed and when no date has been set for the second Negev Summit, initially scheduled to take place in Morocco in March.
THESE DEVELOPMENTS certainly vindicate the logic of the Saudi go-slow approach.
The API, a carefully deliberated one-page paper, was always meant as a starting point, not a take-it-or-leave-it final offer set in stone. The scant details on the core issues in the API final document were always expected to be comprehensively elucidated and agreed upon by Israelis and Palestinians, possibly supported by the US, Arabs and others, in negotiations leading to a final peace treaty.
Successive Israeli governments failed to acknowledge the historic significance of the API, let alone embrace it. Astonishingly, they even failed to respond to private and public invitations to discuss their possible reservations or seek clarifications. Nevertheless, it remains on the table as the most legitimate mechanism for Israel to be recognized by Saudis, Arabs and Muslims across the world.
The courage and vision of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to engage all sides of this conflict, including successive Israeli governments, is laudable and potentially a game changer. Although the Saudis have repeatedly made it clear that they’re ready to cross the Rubicon with Israel, they are also fully cognizant of the ramifications of adopting a policy as important as recognizing Israel under current circumstances. Doing so will have tectonic implications not only for Saudi Arabia, the richest and most consequential Arab-Muslim nation, but also for the greater Middle Eastern region and wider Muslim world.
Though Netanyahu seems to recognize this, his conduct thus far does not suggest a realization of the prerequisites. And despite all the authority Crown Prince Mohammad wields, oppositional currents in and outside the kingdom to such a move run deep and are widespread. Moreover, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations and their sponsors are expected to use Israeli recognition to undermine the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy. They will accuse the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques at Makkah and Madinah of ignoring provocations against the third, in Jerusalem, and turning its back on Palestinian aspirations.
Thus, Netanyahu’s new policy of prioritizing Israel’s normalization with the kingdom before any tangible progress toward a sustainable peace with the Palestinians while his government’s policy guidelines specify exclusive Jewish right to sovereignty between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and his extremist coalition partners attempt to establish Jewish supremacy over Al Aqsa, is simply a non-starter.
THIS WILL remain so until there is a drastic change in strategic posture by the Israeli government. The current extremists in Israel’s government will have to be marginalized before Netanyahu’s electoral promise of Saudi recognition is to be seriously explored, let alone fulfilled.
Likewise, the claim that the Saudi leadership counts on Netanyahu to secure an improvement in its relations with the current American administration, and in return, is prepared to reward him with Saudi recognition of Israel, is simply absurd. It is not only that such false expectations ignore the above-discussed Saudi need to see a different Israeli conduct in and around al-Aqsa and a different approach to Palestinian rights but the crown prince and his national security advisers are not ignorant of the attitude of the Biden White House and the Democratic party toward Netanyahu. Indeed, according to US officials, it is no accident that a Netanyahu visit to the White House is yet to be scheduled.
Moreover, during recent visits to Jerusalem, President Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, CIA Director William Burns and Secretary of State Blinken, reportedly informed Netanyahu that he cannot expect their help in promoting relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, while his government allows extremists to challenge the status quo at the al-Aqsa mosque or pursue destabilizing policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian territories.
In essence, Saudi Arabia has long stood ready to lead a historic change of mutual recognition between Israel and the Arab and Muslim Worlds. However, for that to happen, extremists on both sides need to be marginalized and policies of moderation, accommodation and compromise embraced.
This applies equally to Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the Palestinian side as to messianic extremists on the Israeli. An Israeli government pursuing such an approach will find the Kingdom a ready partner in pursuing a potentially viable peace treaty and rooting out those who aim to elongate this bloody conflict.
Dr. Nawaf Obaid was a special adviser to several senior Saudi officials from 2002 to 2015. He is currently a senior fellow (Intelligence & Security Group) at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.
Dr. Nimrod Novik was a senior adviser to prime minister Shimon Peres and a special ambassador. He is a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum and a member of Commanders for Israel’s Security.