Josef Olmert

Israel-Saudi Arabia: Cost Benefit Balance Sheet

While Israel is dealing with its greatest, most dangerous ever internal crisis, it also has to ponder the pros and cons of a possible agreement with Saudi Arabia, whether as seems more likely a normalization agreement or even full peace treaty. This possibility may have seemed remote and unrealistic when Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two sworn enemies, restored their diplomatic relations and started a process of reconciliation, but in actual terms, there is no inevitable contradiction between the two processes. In fact a lot of geopolitical logic is happening simultaneously. As Saudi Arabia is the sought after bride, being courted by Israel, US and Iran, let us see what the Saudi game is all about.

Saudi Arabia under the Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman [MBS] is a country whose main challenge as stated by the new actual leader is to make changes in many aspects of its domestic life and that means one thing whose existence is the key to it all -stability, and stability means a Middle East where radical forces lack the ability to bring about these changes through abrupt, bloody revolutionary means. Put simply, Saudi Arabia does not want a regional war which could lead to exactly that result, and following from that, the Saudis want to prevent a conflict with Iran but also another Arab conflict with Israel caused by continuation of the Palestinian issue and the existential Iranian-Israeli conflict. Some eyebrows may be raised here-the Saudis fought for years against the Houthis in Yemen, they were in the forefront of the anti Iran campaign and they supported the Syrian Sunni rebels against Bashar Assad. Is that a country shying away from conflict? The answer is that the Saudis failed in all these arenas. The Houthis are where they have been for the last decade, Bashar Assad is still in Damascus and Iran is closer than ever to the bomb. MBS realized that he could not trust Saudi Arabia’s traditional ally the US under the Biden administration, nor was he fooled by the Netanyahu rhetoric about stopping Iran. The young Saudi prince did what was, for him, the inevitable-swallow a glass of poison and deal with Iran , but he did it not in order to give in to the Iranians in the long run, still not trusting them, rather to gain time in order to prevent dire immediate consequences for his kingdom emanating from the failures cited above. Strategically, so long as he is committed to the changes he wants to institute he still needs also to maintain the option of keeping relations with Israel, both in order to have a counter balance to Iran, but also to prevent a total breakdown with the Palestinians. So, he has not given up on the Israeli option, and that brings it back to the Israeli court.

Israel is clearly interested in improving relations with Saudi Arabia-so many obvious reasons why it is an Israeli interest, and very few why it is not. The questions which are relevant though are what is the price to be paid by Israel and whether the current Netanyahu government is capable of paying it. The consistent reports are that the Saudis want ‘’significant ‘’ concessions from Israel with regard to the Palestinian situation, and want the US to provide them with nuclear energy for peaceful purposes as well as all kinds of sophisticated arms. The first Saudi expectation contradicts one of Netanyahu’s basic premises that peace with Saudi Arabia will, for all intents and purposes end the conflict with the Palestinians , or limit it to the point of marginality. A conceptual mistake- As was proved after the Abraham Accords will be the case also with Saudi Arabia-an agreement with the Saudis will contribute to the prevention of another general Arab war with Israel, but will restrict Israel’s freedom of action with regard to the Palestinians, as it will make Saudi pressures on Israel in this regard much more effective than now, and we see it happening already with the Arab countries of the Abraham Accords. Besides, Netanyahu rules, at least nominally, over a coalition which is bent against concessions to the Palestinians. Can he really commit himself to the required concessions? Netanyahu also is committed to prevent a nuclear Iran, which formally argues that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Can he agree to allow Saudi Arabia a free hand to have its program which very easily could become militarized with the clear notion that the nuclear race in the Middle East will then open to all and be completely out of control? On the other hand, let us remember that , Netanyahu needs a big achievement, and any agreement with the Saudis will be taken as one, because it may allow him also to score points with the Biden administration.

The US wants Israeli-Saudi agreement, and there are two main reasons for that-First, if Netanyahu will go for it and accept the need for major concessions to the Palestinians, then it is a long -standing American aim. President Biden may even be a candidate for the Nobel Peace prize. Second, an agreement with Saudi Arabia may restrict if not completely do away with Israel’s military option against Iran. That is also a long-standing American policy goal. Netanyahu will never acknowledge that Israel has no such option, but in the world of reality not PR gimmicks it is clear, that both Biden and MBS will not deliver him a diplomatic victory without corresponding concessions from him, and it will be the concessions to the Palestinians and Iran. The Saudis also will not abandon the desire to have a nuclear deterrent to Iran , but so long as their national policy is to engage in the great changes planned by MBS they will like to feel that there is a deterrent while hoping that it would stay like that between them and Iran, and leave Israel to decide to itself whether it relies on a deterrent. That will be Israel’s problem not theirs.

So, we come to the question of Israel-price. It is in the eye of the beholder of course, but I, for one, will advocate concessions to the Palestinians but NO abandonment of the military option versus Iran, not just in talks but in actual readiness to action and even IF need be in the very near future. A problem though-Netanyahu cannot make significant concessions to the Palestinians and proved unwilling maybe unable to deal effectively with Iran. The Saudis have proved their astuteness -they watch and understand, so do the Iranians. Therefore, an agreement with Saudi Arabia as explained until now is either not likely to happen, or will be meaningless if not detrimental to the most existential interest of Israel if achieved.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina
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