The Saudi Normalization Deal, the Palestinian Dimension, and Israel’s Governance Crisis (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- August 14, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. A Saudi consul general in Jerusalem? Despite all the bad news regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations?

A. On Saturday Nayef al-Sudairi, Riyadh’s ambassador to Jordan, became both Saudi non-resident ambassador to the Palestinian Authority and Saudi consul-general in Jerusalem. This looks like a smart maneuver by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a. MbS, the de facto ruler). It is a major gesture to the Palestinians. And even if the Saudi consul in Jerusalem is accredited to the PA and may not be recognized by Israel, appointing a Saudi diplomat to Jerusalem can also be seen as a kind of backhanded gesture of normalization with Israel.

A Saudi consul general in Jerusalem is also a striking example of Saudi soft power at play in the Muslim world. Inevitably, it hints at a Saudi aspiration to supplant Jordan as custodian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. Here we recall that Jordan, by dint of its 1994 peace treaty with Israel, is custodian of both Muslim and Christian holy places in Jerusalem but that Saudi Arabia, guardian of the two holiest sites in Islam--Mecca and Medina--aspires to “protect” the third, Jerusalem, as well.

All this is happening as the Netanyahu government, to please both Riyadh and Washington, is hinting it could make a few minor gestures to the Palestinians (Netanyahu to Bloomberg TV: “just a box you have to check to say that you’re doing it”) while generating a series of crises in its relations with Israel’s Arab community, with West Bank Palestinians, and even with the Israel Defense Forces, not to mention the Israeli public-at-large. All these crises send the Arab world and Iran a message of Israeli weakness.

Q. Can you be more specific about the gestures?

A. The gestures hinted at by Israel’s security establishment are unimpressive, if not just plain virtual; most cannot easily even be measured. They include reduced IDF penetration into Area A of the West Bank (reduced from what?), early release of seriously ill Palestinian prisoners (lest they die on Israel’s watch) and accelerated development of a Palestinian gas field off the Gaza coast (but who measures acceleration?).

Still, the gestures reflect the IDF’s assessment that Israel has an interest in improving stability and prosperity in the Palestinian Authority. Yet even minor gestures like these are liable to be vetoed by the many hawks in the Netanyahu government who do not share the IDF’s interest in peace and quiet in the West Bank and Gaza. To be on the safe side, one senior official in Netanyahu’s government told the press: “We won’t do anything dramatic. . . . there will be no [settlement] construction freeze, not even for a minute”.

MbS, take note!

Q. And the crises?

A. The list of crises is so long, it is becoming difficult to keep track. First and foremost is the effect on Israeli governance and on IDF combat readiness of popular protests against the coalition’s anti-democratic ‘judicial reform’ measures. In particular, the growing refusal to serve on the part of veteran air force, intelligence and other reservists.

The IDF is taking off the gloves and signaling to the public, through the media, that the growing damage to combat readiness is liable to become impossible to conceal by next month. It knows that in going public it will incur right-wing coalition allegations of politicization; it is desperate enough to ignore them.

As for Netanyahu, on the one hand he simply brushes off security community warnings in his frequent and increasingly bizarre interviews with the American media. On the other, he berates the IDF chiefs when they warn him of the damage being done, especially to the air force. “This sounds like an army that has a country [and not vice versa]”, the prime minister reportedly told them last Friday. Yet he persists with the very anti-democratic reforms that are alienating air force pilots along with two-thirds of the rest of the country.

Still on security issues, next month the coalition is committed to submitting a bill to the Knesset that formally exempts Israel’s growing ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community from national service and equates long-term Torah study to military service in terms of benefits. If this happens, it will once-and-for-all end any illusion in Israel of a ‘people’s army’ and universal service and deal a heavy blow to national morale, not to mention to the IDF’s deterrent profile.

Then there are recent openly anti-Arab measures. One is financial: Messianist pro-settler Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich is refusing to transfer pre-committed and pre-budgeted funds to Israel’s  crime-ridden Arab sector. The funds are meant to enable projects that fight crime. The security community and even several right-wing ministers support the transfer. But Smotrich claims the funds will only incite crime and terrorism; that is what his racist settler base wants to hear.

A second crisis is legal. Apartheid in the West Bank was recently demonstrated when extremist settlers from one of those illegal outposts that Smotrich is legalizing descended on the nearby Arab village of Burqa and killed a villager. The entire country witnessed how the settlers, who are subject to Israeli law, were coddled by the Israel Police and the legal system, while the Palestinians who defended their village and opposed them were handled far more harshly by the IDF.

For the record: Under international law, the IDF occupying force in the West Bank is supposed to protect the Palestinian population. It does not; it protects only Jewish settlers. The IDF prosecutes West Bank Palestinians who run afoul of Israelis, relying on a (military) legal system and standards of evidence that are harsher than Israeli civil law. On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority is forbidden to arrest and prosecute Israelis who attack Palestinians in their villages.

Remember the IDF soldier from the Givati Brigade policing Hebron who stated to Israel Channel 11 last November, referring to Israel’s soon-to-be minister of national security, that “Ben Gvir will put things here in order”? Sadly, he predicted the future better than most Israelis.

Yet a third crisis is economic. Finance Minister Smotrich, backed by Netanyahu, says Israel’s economic situation is rosy. The statistics present a radically different and alarming picture. Since the Netanyahu government took office less than eight months ago, the shekel has been devalued against the dollar by 15 percent. The prime interest rate is up by 3.5 percent. Income from taxes is down by seven percent. Average rent rates are up nearly 10 percent. And high-tech investment is down 90 percent. The public knows the score.

And here is a fourth, brewing crisis. It involves public transportation: bus drivers in areas with Haredi residents, who take the (illegal) initiative and force female passengers to sit in the rear--or refuse to allow them to board the bus at all unless they ‘cover up’ in the August heat.

Q. Back to the Saudi normalization deal. If Netanyahu can just ‘check a few boxes’ and can persuade his extremist ministers to look the other way, why not?

A. Certainly it is hard to object to normalization of relations between Riyadh and Jerusalem, particularly if it obliges Israel to initiate a much-needed warming of relations with the Palestinian Authority. But the normalization deal is not just about the Palestinians. It is also--indeed, first and foremost--about the United States and Gulf security.

The deal, if and when it happens, will include American security guarantees for Riyadh. These, presumably, Israel can live with. But the Saudis’ demand that Washington agree they have their own capacity to enrich nuclear fuel is highly problematic for Israel. This is an extremely sensitive component of a nuclear program that the UAE, for example, willingly agreed to forego in return for nuclear assistance. Nuclear fuel recycling is a major stumbling block in any US-led attempt to rein in Iran’s nuclear project within the context of some sort of new and modified JCPOA-type agreement or even informal understanding.

Note that opposition leader Yair Lapid has made the Saudi nuclear recycling issue the main pillar of his criticism of the Netanyahu government. Lapid is citing the opinion of the IDF’s most senior officers and is not being contradicted by the IDF. By implication, if Netanyahu agrees to Saudi enrichment in return for normalization, he will be betraying Israeli security.

Meanwhile, the prime minister is sending Strategy Minister Ron Dermer, a confidant, to Washington to consult with the administration on the Saudi deal.

Q. Bottom line?

A. At the end of the day, Israel’s crisis is all about Netanyahu. His tolerance of the extreme behavior of his ministers and his refusal to address his fellow Israelis--but rather only the compliant US press with its softball questions--are horrifying a growing number of moderate Likudniks. For the first time in his 15 years as prime minister, Netanyahu’s judgment on issues both strategic and political is being questioned openly by his own followers.

Either he is weak and distracted by health and other personal issues, or his government’s extremism--Smotrich, Ben Gvir, Justice Minister Levin, the Haredim--represents the real Netanyahu. It hardly matters any more.

In contrast, at the end of the day the Saudi-US deal, if it even happens, is all about MbS. Israel’s role increasingly looks minor, and may end up being little more than symbolic.

Like it or not, MbS is becoming the dominant Arab leader in the Middle East.