Published on June 7, 2023 in the Jerusalem Post.
Photo: Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas is received by Prince Badr Bin Sultan, as he arrives to attend the Arab League Summit in Jeddah, last month. Photo credit: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/REUTERS.
I recently traveled to Qatar, Oman and Israel to assess whether Arab nations not joining the Abraham Accords might normalize relations with Israel in other ways. Extensive meetings with foreign policy, military, security, religious and media executives disabused me of the hope that normalization is just around the corner. However, in Oman and on a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, I did not feel any animosity toward Jews or rule out the possibility that Israel could be part of a normalization process in the future if only there could be progress on the Palestinian front.
The Abraham Accords was a groundbreaking achievement, paving a new path towards stabilizing the Middle East and offering new opportunities and prosperity to those who took the risk. The UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan unexpectedly prioritized their own best interests in 2020, not being held hostage to a Palestinian veto. However, opponents said they betrayed the Palestinian cause and that is where we are today.
In Oman and Qatar, I heard off-the-record confirmations that the United States is using those nations’ open lines of communication with Iran to pass messages regarding re-entering a nuclear agreement. However, as crucial as normalization with the Saudis is for Israel and the United States, it should not “come at the expense of Israel’s top priority: Preventing a bad Iran deal,” as a headline put it in an article written by Brig. Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Withholding normalization with Israel until it concedes to maximalist Palestinian demands is a dead-end path for Saudi Arabian economic interests and does no good for regional stability. The demand to withdraw to the 1949 Armistice line (1967 line) would be strategic suicide for Israel, as would an unconditional right of return that would demographically end the Jewish State.
In Oman, the Minister of Information made a point of mentioning that a former Omani Minister of Foreign Affairs said that the Arab world must make Israel feel secure. That sensitivity to one’s adversary’s fear would go a long way to reassuring Israel, as would significant steps toward normalization. Trust that turns into friendship is the promise of the Abraham Accords, a normalization between people, not just governments.
The Palestinian Authority has climbed up a tree and doesn’t know how to get down. They need a way out. That is where normalization between Israel and the Kingdom comes into play, but it doesn’t have to be an add-on to the Abraham Accords.
What would make Saudi Arabia normalize relations with Israel?
Unfortunately, the Saudis seem less interested in normalization than in the past, especially in light of America’s desire to leave the region, being perceived as an unreliable fair-weather ally. So the Saudis have reportedly raised the stakes, demanding a higher price for normalization with Israel, including a civilian nuclear project in the Kingdom, US security agreements comparable to those with NATO, and access to the most advanced US weaponry.
So is the Crown Prince, the de facto leader of the House of Saud and a visionary for a new Arab future, willing to grasp the opportunity to normalize relations with Israel and become a primary mediator for resolving the conflict while advancing his nation’s economic prospects?
From the Saudi perspective, it is not enough to align with the regional military powerhouse, Israel, if America is not part of the package. My meetings in Qatar, Oman and Israel reinforced my impression that the new Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is a short-term detente that will not end their fundamental differences.
Arab influence on Israeli policy with the Palestinians would significantly rise by creating diplomatic relations with Israel. Israel would be more willing to compromise and listen to the Arab input if they could speak openly, face to face. For example, the prospect of relations with the Emirates and Bahrainians allowed those nations to get Israel to call off the annexation of parts of the West Bank.
Unlike my meetings in Egypt and Jordan, where criticism and outright antisemitism were displayed, my discussions in Riyadh and Oman showed no general animosity toward Israel, only toward its Palestinian policy. But the Saudis told me that as the leader of the Arab world, custodians of Islam’s most holy sites, they need to be more cautious. There is no doubt that open economic academic, and political relations with Israel would accelerate the financial interests of Saudi Arabia and the advancement of its Vision 2030.
But if the Saudi goal is to end the conflict and stabilize the region, would they lose or gain influence if they recognized Israel before the conflict formally ended? Having the Israelis and Palestinian Authority begin the reconciliation process, sidelining Hamas, the progeny of the Muslim Brotherhood and enemy to the Kingdom would benefit the Saudis.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) is now incapable of making peace with Israel or enforcing it. The longer there is no PA-Israel truce or peace, the weaker the PA becomes, the stronger Hamas becomes, with the possibility of a Hamas coup in the West Bank.
In 2000, Saudi Prince Bandar was incredulous that the Palestinians turned down an unprecedented Israeli offer at Camp David. According to Al Arabiya, “Bandar, who later became the Kingdom’s intelligence chief and head of national security, said the Palestinian leadership undermined the peace negotiations at several stages despite Saudi Arabian efforts to secure a deal.”
Today, the PA aims to be more extreme than Hamas, so they may again turn down reasonable compromises mediated by the Saudis. If that is the case, the Saudis can honestly say to the Arab world that the time for peace is not yet and not have their interests vetoed by Palestinian intransigence.
Normalization is perhaps too far a leap for King Salman. However, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS), the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, is practical and wants to advance Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab world in the 21st century. MBS is the man to take the leap, knowing open political relations with Israel would accelerate the financial interests of Saudi Arabia and its advancement of Vision 2030. According to Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf, (MBS) has also vocalized “that is clearly a thing (normalization) he’s got in mind as a step he wants to move to[ward].”
How much can America offer the Saudis for normalization, how much risk can MBS take and how risky is it for Israel to accept a Saudi civilian nuclear program? Those are just some of the difficult questions.
The bottom line is that the best way for Arab countries to influence Israel is to engage with Israel. Despite his coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would go to great lengths to compromise with MBS. It is also up to the US to repair its relations with the Saudis and convince MBS they have a partner in the US if they normalize with Israel. This is a strategic goal for the US, as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said, “Full normalization is a declared national security interest of the United States.”
It is up to MBS and President Joe Biden to show courage and leadership befitting their high office.