Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman made a remarkable disclosure a few days ago when he told Fox News that Saudi Arabia and Israel are moving “closer” each day to a historic normalization agreement.
Salman, the de facto ruler of the oil-rich desert kingdom, issued this encouraging comment following an interview with the Atlantic magazine last year in which he said, “We don’t look at Israel as an enemy, we look to them as a potential ally with so many interests that we can pursue together.”
But as Salman pointed out, several issues of importance must be settled before an Israeli-Saudi rapprochement is possible.
In exchange for establishing formal relations with Israel, which would represent a revolutionary step forward in defusing the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Saudis are demanding sweeping concessions from the United States and Israel.
From the U.S., the Saudis seek a civil nuclear program, a mutual defence treaty and advanced military equipment. From Israel, the Saudis want a clear-cut resolution of the Palestinian problem, a running sore on the body politic of the Middle East.
As Salman told Fox, “For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part.”
Last week, Salman assured a Palestinian delegation that Saudi Arabia “will not abandon” the Palestinian cause as it engages the United States in negotiations to secure an accord with Israel.
This contentious issue figured prominently in talks between U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York City on September 20. It was their first face-to-face meeting since Netanyahu’s return to power last December.
Since then, the United States has worked overtime to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough that could lead not only to a gradual normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but to a roadmap for a fair and practical resolution of the Palestinian imbroglio.
In recent months, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, have travelled to Saudi Arabia in the quest to break the diplomatic logjam.
It will be difficult to nail down such an agreement.
“The road will be long and winding,” said Barbara Leaf, the top U.S. diplomat in charge of Middle East affairs, the other day. “It will be very complex to get there. But we believe fundamentally that it has strategic value for the US, for Saudi Arabia, for Israel, but more broadly for the region.”
With this in mind, Biden urged Netanyahu to preserve the conditions for a two-state solution and to refrain from building new settlements and expanding old ones in the West Bank. Netanayahu reportedly told Biden that the Palestinians should be involved, but that they should not have “a veto over the process.”
As Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen noted yesterday, there are “many details” to be ironed out before Israel and Saudi Arabia can sign on the dotted line.
Netanyahu and his extreme right-wing coalition vehemently oppose Palestinian statehood, are continually enlarging settlements, and have spoken of annexing parts of the West Bank.
Another fly in the ointment is Saudi Arabia’s demand for a civilian nuclear program. Israel’s opposition leader and former prime minister, Yair Lapid, has said that this is a non-starter. As he put it, “A normalization agreement … is a welcome thing. But not at the cost of allowing the Saudis to develop nuclear weapons.”
He added, “Netanyahu fought precisely against such moves. These are the foundations of our nuclear strategy … Israel must not agree to any type of uranium enrichment in Saudi Arabia.”
According to the most recent reports, Netanayahu has instructed his team to cooperate with U.S. negotiators on an American-managed uranium enrichment operation on Saudi soil.
The Palestinian issue may prove to be the thorniest issue to be settled, even though Israel’s foreign minister thinks that the gaps between Israel and Saudi Arabia can be bridged and that details of an agreement can be finalized in the first quarter of 2024.
The Palestinians should not be left in the lurch as Israel and Saudi Arabia appear to move forward in settling their differences.
On September 21, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the United Nations General Assembly that peace in the region cannot be attained unless the Palestinians achieve statehood. “Those who think peace can prevail in the Middle East without the Palestinian people enjoying their full legitimate and national rights would be mistaken,” said Abbas.
He is right.
Realistically, Israel will have to do far more than merely grant cosmetic “concessions” to the Palestinians, as several Israeli ministers have suggested of late. Israel will have to explicitly endorse a two-state solution and take concrete, unambiguous steps to fulfill the promise of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
An open letter drafted by the Israel Policy Forum, published on September 19 as Biden addressed the United Nations General Assembly, addresses this issue. It was endorsed by 75 current and former American Jewish community leaders.
It calls on Israel to halt settlement expansion in the West Bank and increase “territorial sovereignty for Palestinians” by ceding portions of Area C in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority.
It also states that the Palestinian Authority will have to be held accountable for implementing reforms and strengthening its financial stability.
“These steps would arrest the current deterioration of the situation on the ground and advance American interests by improving regional stability and laying the groundwork for two states.”
It urged Biden to pursue an agreement that will advance U.S. national security interests, enhance Israel’s long-term security, and expand regional peace, “which necessarily requires reversing the worrisome trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The current Israeli government will be extremely hard-pressed to accept these terms. If he is really serious about normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu will have to ditch his intransigent coalition partners and form a new government that includes moderates from centrist parties. Whether Netanyahu is capable of such a dramatic volte face remains doubtful.
What is certain is that an Israeli-Saudi normalization pact will remain a dream unless there is a complete change of policy direction in Jerusalem.
Israel, to be sure, must pay a price for a deal with Saudi Arabia and acceptance in the Arab world.