Saudi-Israeli romance? It’s complicated

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman waves alongside a line of flags

Saudi-Israeli normalization efforts come at a time of increasing political complexity in the region. 

Abaca Press SIPA

So, will they or won’t they?

The Washington-mediated Saudi-Israeli normalization flirtation seems to have been going on for years now, starting with the de facto ascent to power of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and his first visit in that capacity to the US in 2018.

This summer has seen all parties bat their eyelids with particular vigor, none more so than wannabe matchmaker Joe Biden.

This might be a quixotic endeavor, however, not least because a complicated effort would seem to have a six- to nine-month time limit.

The US president appears very keen to hurry along a normalization deal ahead of next year’s US presidential elections. It would provide him with an ace with which to trump presumed challenger Donald Trump’s own foreign policy “achievement,” the so-called Abraham Accords signed between Israel and a few Arab states while Trump was president.

Reports about the current courtship first surfaced in June when The New York Times described it as a “long-shot attempt.”

Since then, details about the negotiations have gradually assumed more substance. Stumbling blocks abound, however, and include security guarantees, nuclear technology, Jamal Khashoggi, arms deals, Riyadh’s desire to present itself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, Israel’s desire to carry on deepening its occupation of 1967 territory without interference, and a potential geo-political shift in the region away from US dependence and toward China.

Nevertheless, the effort is serious, something reflected by the PA’s decision to send a delegation to Riyadh. This suggests that the PA wants to be engaged rather than absent, as it was ahead of the Abraham Accords it then unequivocally denounced.

The PA has three options but little influence. It can seek to convince the Saudis to take a step back, demand that the terms of the 2002 Saudi peace initiative be insisted upon, or, simply, strive to be involved from the start if a deal is judged imminent.

The latter is lent credence by reports that the Saudis have offered a resumption of financial aid to the PA if it can rein in armed groups in the West Bank.

As if on cue, last Wednesday, one person was killed in clashes between PA security services and armed men in Tulkarm refugee camp in the northern West Bank. The former had tried to clear barricades in the camp set up to prevent Israeli military incursions.

Regional detente

Desperate as the PA is for cash to cling to power in an increasingly hostile domestic environment, Riyadh’s calculations are likely to have little to do with the PA’s survival. Indeed, the extent to which Israeli “concessions” to the Palestinians in general matter at all to Riyadh is a matter of debate, though not unimportant.

The UAE, Bahrain and later Morocco shrugged off any such considerations when they signed the Abraham Accords. But none of those have to assume the responsibilities that come with being “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.”

Their experience does prove instructive more broadly. The UAE had sought an upgrade to its air force in the shape of American F-35 fighter jets, for instance. That upgrade has yet to materialize, as America’s commitment to Israel’s “qualitative edge” in military hardware remains intact.

Abu Dhabi’s reputation in the region – where normalization with Israel is still deeply opposed – has also taken a hit.

Palestinian leaders were highly critical at the time. The PA even called the UAE’s signing of the Abraham Accords a “betrayal.” More recently, the country was described by one Algerian newspaper as part of the “Zionist alliance,” after a spat between the two.

Such criticisms may carry little weight in Abu Dhabi, but they might carry a little more weight in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is home to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam, and styles itself as leader of the Sunni Muslim world. Not securing some kind of “concessions” over Palestine and the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, would be a reputational gamble.

Saudi Arabia is also reportedly seeking security guarantees from the US, ostensibly against regional rival Iran. But with Chinese mediation, Riyadh recently re-established diplomatic ties with Tehran. The war in Yemen appears to be winding down, and while Iraq remains in a state of Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife after the disastrous US invasion of 2003, the tensions there are localized, at the moment at least.

Areas of friction between the two powers, in other words, would seem to be diminishing.

The US, moreover, might also balk at having to provide the kind of security guarantees Riyadh is seeking, not least since Congress remains hostile to a country Biden himself described as a “pariah” when running for president.

There remains the matter of US resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, whose death in a Saudi consulate in Turkey, US intelligence squarely blamed on bin Salman.

China syndrome

Then there is China. China brokered renewed relations between Tehran and Riyadh in a move widely seen as an attempt by Beijing to rival hitherto unchallenged US influence in the Middle East.

Beijing’s widening role in the region was further underlined when the UAE and China announced their first ever joint air force drill last month after the UAE procured advanced Chinese fighter jets in February.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been invited to join the BRICS group of nations, which includes China and Russia.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has so far resisted US pressure to increase oil production in a bid to keep prices low after they spiked in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this summer, Saudi Arabia and Russia instead agreed to cut production to keep prices high.

The US is no longer the only game in town, and Riyadh has options. But that current room for diplomatic maneuver will be more limited should Saudi Arabia enter into a normalization agreement with Israel that might force it to choose between the US and China.

Why – as the old joke has Yasser Arafat reply after being challenged over why he failed to throw the last stone at pillars representing Satan during the Hajj – cut off your relations completely?

In such a complex picture, Palestine assumes a greater importance. Any Israeli “concessions” – i.e., Israeli adherence to international law – would have to leave Riyadh able to claim that some, most, or all of the tenets of its 2002 Arab peace initiative, which seeks an independent Palestinian state on 1967 territory with East Jerusalem as its capital, had been met.

That would potentially prove a deal clincher. But that, of course, is not going to happen to any degree other than cosmetic. There is general Israeli consensus across the political spectrum to manage rather than end the occupation. There is absolutely no appetite to rein in a settlement project that is designed to prevent any independent Palestinian entity from emerging. And the current Israeli coalition government only seeks expansion.

Israel will not take significant steps vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the US will not make it.

No amount of candlelit dinners will change that. Riyadh’s conundrum at the moment is to calculate if pursuing a romance with Israel is worth it, in a region where US power is not what it was.

Palestinians will, as usual, have to fend for themselves, whatever the outcome.


Omar Karmi

Omar Karmi is an independent journalist and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.