Kenneth Jacobson

The could-be historic Israel-Saudi deal

The impending agreement between the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel holds out historic possibilities for the region and the Jewish state, while also raising challenges that have long afflicted the area.

As has been said many times already, getting Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel would be the big breakthrough that many have longed for for decades. All kinds of reasons seemed to stand in the way of such a deal – Saudi cautiousness, good old Arab rejectionism, Islamist pressures on the Kingdom that houses Islam’s holiest sites, and the veto of the Palestinians.

Now that it is seemingly a real possibility, the latest evidence being the appearance publicly of Israeli minister Israel Katz at a Saudi conference in Riyadh, there is a recognition that if it happens it will generate a new Middle East with Israel truly an integral part of the region. The possibilities of progress are endless, including trade, security, sharing of technology and water, and health cooperation.

Israel has always had so much to contribute to the well-being of the peoples of the Middle East, and now it could all come true. It reminds one that after the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal in 1979, an article appeared in the New York Times which focused on comments by Syria’s foreign minister saying that this agreement will lead to Israel’s domination of the Middle East and the Arab world must resist it with all its might.

What a contrast to today when the positive potential for normalization and cooperation are being highlighted.

And yet, one should have no illusions that the Middle East has suddenly become the Middle West. Violence, extremist ideologies and threats remain and must be accounted for.

Iran is not going away because of Saudi-Israeli peace. Nuclear energy for the Saudis may be one of the incentives for the agreement but where will that lead? And the Palestinian issue may no longer hold a veto over progress toward a more normal region, but it isn’t going away and Israeli decision making on this issue still remains unresolved.

The big question still standing in the way of this historic agreement is what will the Saudis insist is necessary to improve the situation of the Palestinians? How much could this right-wing Israeli government, which includes those who are ideologically committed to annexation of the West Bank, be ready to concede in order to make it happen?

Clearly, the one area of overlap where a consensus could be reached is economic steps to improve the lives of the Palestinians. Yes, while it is true that extremists within the governing coalition have been pressing to cut off income for the Palestinian community, there is little likelihood that a majority of the coalition would oppose economic steps if in exchange Israel would achieve normalization with the Saudis.

Once one gets beyond this area, the conflicts emerge. Any effort to press Israel to accept a halt to settlement activity in the West Bank will be met with strong opposition since this touches on a core ideological credo of significant parts of the governing coalition.

One has to assume that the Saudis will want something on this issue so they don’t appear to be capitulating in these negotiations. One wonders whether they might be willing to accept the idea as sufficient to get Israel to agree to no more settlement building outside the large blocs, a position which the previous Israeli government was abiding by.

This approach might open a path toward a compromise solution and one that Netanyahu might find appealing if it becomes the key to bringing an agreement. Of course, significant elements of his government would oppose such a compromise but it is possible to imagine that a deal like this could be worked out.

One must keep in mind at every stage that it is ironic that this historic step could be happening when Israel is in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions, with a highly unpopular Israeli government that would likely lose power if an election were held now.

The relevant point here is that the Israeli leadership has an extra incentive, even beyond the obvious ones, to reach agreement with the Saudis in order to try to begin to reverse the downward path it is experiencing with the public. Whether or not a Saudi agreement would achieve this as long as the judicial issues are center stage is debatable, but surely, in the mind of the Prime Minister, this undoubtedly is a significant part of his thinking.

Historic forces are at work in the region. How they turn out will inform the future of the peoples of the Middle East.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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