Saudi normalization with Israel could be a major breakthrough - opinion

Saudi Arabia and Israel are currently holding covert liaisons but normalization has not yet been announced.

 SAUDI KING Salman bin Abdulaziz delivers a speech by video to the G20 summit, held in Rome from Riyadh on Saturday. (photo credit: BANDAR ALGALOUD / SAUDI ROYAL COURT / REUTERS)
SAUDI KING Salman bin Abdulaziz delivers a speech by video to the G20 summit, held in Rome from Riyadh on Saturday.
(photo credit: BANDAR ALGALOUD / SAUDI ROYAL COURT / REUTERS)

On October 20, under the dramatic headline “Scoop,” online news provider Axios posted an exclusive story – details of a conversation held on September 27 between US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

The information, it told its titillated readers, had reached it from no less than “three US and Arab sources.”

The nub of the story was that, during their discussion, Sullivan had raised the issue of Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel, and that MBS had not rejected the idea out of hand.

Their meeting took place in Neom, the futuristic planned city being constructed on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast. Neom is an integral element in MBS’s Saudi Vision 2030 – his ambitious plan to reposition Saudi Arabia away from its current dependence on oil in good time to celebrate the kingdom’s centenary in September 2032. Sullivan may well have wondered whether MBS’s aspirations for Saudi Arabia’s future included signing up to the Abraham Accords.

This is an issue of some importance for the region. If or when Saudi Arabia decides on an open normalization with Israel – as opposed to the covert liaison they currently enjoy – it would be regarded as a major breakthrough in Arab-Israeli relations, and a step other Muslim nations would feel able to follow.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud arrives to attend the G20 meeting of foreign and development ministers in Matera, Italy, June 29, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/YARA NARDI)Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud arrives to attend the G20 meeting of foreign and development ministers in Matera, Italy, June 29, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/YARA NARDI)

Some practical obstacles would need to be surmounted. The basic Muslim position regarding Israel is still the Arab Peace Initiative, proposed to the Arab League in 2002 by MBS’s uncle, then-crown prince Abdullah. It was adopted and has subsequently been endorsed twice, by the league. Normalizing relations with Israel without reference to the plan would require justification, which is why Saudi Arabia has so far insisted that movement on the Israel-Palestinian issue would be an essential prerequisite to any normalization deal.

Yet the step, if it were taken, could certainly be defended and explained.

Normalization under the Abraham Accords is concerned with the pragmatic issues of economic, security, trade and social cooperation for the benefit of the citizens of their respective countries. Signing up to them in no way implies an abandonment of Palestinian aspirations. Indeed, all the current signatories have expressed their continuing support for Palestinian sovereignty within something akin to the pre-1967 boundaries. They see flourishing cooperation between Arab states and Israel as an important precursor to peace negotiations and an eventual Israel-Palestinian deal.

A HIGHLY pragmatic consideration may also push Saudi Arabia into normalization – the plans announced by MBS ahead of this year’s COP26 climate change conference, now being held in Glasgow, Scotland, during the first two weeks of November.

On March 27 he unveiled his Saudi and Middle East Green Initiatives – an ambitious effort to lead a full-scale environmental process in the Middle East by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The initiative falls neatly within the compass of his Saudi 2030 Vision, which involves replacing oil-based energy generation with renewable energy sources.

In 2018, the Saudi electricity supply from renewable sources amounted to some 0.05% of the whole. MBS has pledged that by 2030 no less than 50% of the kingdom’s energy consumption will be from renewable energy, and that it will reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2060.

Those are exceedingly ambitious targets, and the nation will need all the help it can muster to reach them. Israel, an acknowledged world leader in hi-tech development across a wide range of energy and environmental issues, would be an invaluable partner in helping Saudi Arabia achieve its goals. Perhaps it was this consideration that led MBS not to reject the idea of normalization “out of hand.”

Israel’s commitment to tackling the climate change issue is deadly serious. Life and Environment, the official umbrella organization of the environmental movement in Israel, brings together over 130 environmental organizations.

On October 17, Israeli media reported that the government is preparing a national climate emergency declaration that would oblige all state bodies to coordinate their preparations for combating climate change.

In addition, it was reported, a climate law is being prepared, the draft of which is gaining ministerial support. Together, the declaration and new bill would require all public agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, establish monitoring and reporting systems, and prepare for climate emergencies.

These initiatives are in line with declarations made by President Isaac Herzog on taking office. In his inaugural address in July, he said it is his personal mission to address the climate crisis. He intends to boost public and national awareness and cooperate with all sections of Israeli society in responding to the crisis.

On October 20, Herzog announced the establishment of the Israeli Climate Forum, which will lead deliberations about the climate crisis and Israel’s role in the fight against it.

The forum, which will include representatives from across Israeli society, will operate under the auspices of the Office of the President and will convene several times a year.

This development, said the president, will underscore Israel’s commitment to stand at the forefront of the global debate about the climate crisis, raise awareness among all parts of Israel’s leadership about its severity, promote collaboration between all sectors in Israeli society, and promote regional and international collaboration to push for a response.

It is clear that Israel’s coalition government and its president are of one mind and fully committed to tackling this existential problem. The Israel delegation currently at COP26 in Glasgow is second in size only to that of the US.

Israel’s serious and focused approach may help persuade other, less committed countries to take more urgent action.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, and perhaps several other Gulf nations, it may provide the final push to enter into a working relationship with the partner best able to help them reach the targets they have set themselves in tackling the issues affecting the future of Planet Earth itself.

The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is: Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020. Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com.