Saudi-Israeli Normalization? (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- October 2, 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. Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz traveled to Saudi Arabia last week as the first Israeli minister to head an official delegation to the country. In parallel, Riyadh’s new ambassador to Palestine paid his first visit to Ramallah. Is this the face of Israeli-Saudi normalization?

A. Indeed, it looks like we are sliding stealthily into normalization, as yet without an official declaration in Washington, Riyadh or Jerusalem but with encouraging remarks in both Washington and Riyadh. (Jerusalem is more cautious, but bear in mind that Israel is deep into the Sukkot week-long holiday.)

Over the weekend, spokesperson for the US National Security Council John Kirby declared that “All sides have hammered out, I think, a basic framework for what, you know, what we might be able to drive at.” Shortly earlier, Saudi de-facto leader Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) told Fox News that the sides are making constant progress toward normalization. There is not much substance to these declarations, but the direction is clear.

Even indications of possible impending direct negotiations between the United States and Iran are interpreted in both Washington and the Middle East as reinforcing the momentum toward a triangular US-Saudi-Israeli deal. By helping stabilize the Middle East, a US-Iran dialogue might reduce the risks involved for the US in guaranteeing Saudi security.

Yet just as conspicuous as the optimistic assessments are the missing pieces of the normalization puzzle. In particular, these concern Saudi benefits for the Palestinians and American concessions, watched closely by Israel, regarding Saudi security demands.

Q. Such as? Can you be more specific regarding the Palestinian angle?

A. As matters stand, the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership appears to be getting the short end of a normalization deal: nothing even close to a two-state solution. True, Riyadh’s new non-resident ambassador to Palestine and consul-general to Jerusalem, Nayef bin Bandar al-Sudairi, reiterated last week in Ramallah that Saudi Arabia remains committed to Palestinian statehood. The claim was repeated at the United Nations by Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan. Yet the Saudi who really makes policy, MbS, said nothing of the sort to Fox News.

Rather, MbS merely stated that the kingdom would like to see a normalization deal make the lives of Palestinians easier. He pointedly avoided any reference to a Palestinian state, the freezing of settlements or an end to occupation. He may pay lip service to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API)--a Saudi project that conditions Arab recognition of Israel on Israeli withdrawal from territories that include the West Bank. But it is now clear that he will follow in the footsteps of the UAE in blatantly ignoring the substance of the API while cynically pledging fealty to it.

Unlike in the previous round of Israeli normalization a few years ago with the Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, this time the Palestinian Authority under the aging Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is not objecting loudly to what it sees as Arab duplicity. Indeed, it is hoping openly to exploit Saudi-Israeli rapprochement to shame the Saudis into allocating generous financial aid to Ramallah. And it hopes to shame Jerusalem and Washington into at least agreeing to the reopening of a US consulate in East Jerusalem that deals with Palestinian affairs and of a Palestinian embassy in the United States. 

Q. And Saudi security demands from Washington?

A. MbS continues to insist on an American-supplied nuclear program, and to threaten to turn to the Chinese if he does not get it. In his Fox interview, MbS stated point blank that if Iran has a “right to enrich” (it is indeed enriching uranium), Saudi Arabia would have to get the same right. He also wants an ironclad American security commitment to defend his country against aggression.

A major motivator of Saudi security fears and nuclear concerns can be traced in the recent past to the sophisticated Iranian-proxy drone attack on key Saudi fuel installations in September 2019, when the Trump administration stood by and did nothing. Another factor of concern to the Saudis is Iran’s hegemonic drive across the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon ‘Shi’ite Crescent’ toward the Mediterranean. More constant Saudi concerns touch on long-term Iran-Arab rivalries over Persian/Arab Gulf hegemony, energy-drilling rights in the Gulf, and the status of Shiite Arab Gulf communities.

The Israeli security community vehemently objects to any Saudi enrichment agreement whatsoever. It may acquiesce in security concessions to MbS and in a US-controlled Saudi civilian nuclear program. But Israel understandably fears that instability in Saudi Arabia could catapult an even ‘looser cannon’ than MbS to power in Riyadh and that a nuclear Saudi Arabia will catalyze a nuclear and highly volatile Middle East.

What dimensions of the Saudi security demands can and will the Biden administration satisfy? After all, Biden is liable to confront protests not only by Israel but by the congressional Democratic left (over the Saudi human rights record) and by some Republicans (who reject US security involvement), even as US presidential elections are looming. And how will all parties--the administration, the Netanyahu government, MbS, Mahmoud Abbas--deal with the inevitable attempts to tweak the balance among the diverse concessions to and by the Saudis that are still being negotiated?

Q. Are there broader regional grand-strategic issues at stake here?

A. Absolutely. Saudi Arabia is emerging as the preeminent Arab power. MbS is fostering impressive infrastructure and cultural projects and exploitation of Saudi natural resources other than oil, e.g., uranium. Israel has every reason to cultivate ties.

Yet Saudi security forces are little more than a paper tiger. Despite all the American and British weaponry lavished upon them, they have in recent years failed to protect the kingdom against Iranian-proxy attack and failed in their intervention in neighboring Yemen’s civil war. No wonder MbS is asking for American protection. But he is making demands that could either catalyze a regional nuclear arms race or place nuclear weapons in the wrong hands--or both.

Turning to American interests, the Biden administration, after first condemning MbS’s despicable murder of Jamal Khashoggi and his imprisonment of the meekest of human rights activists, is now courting MbS. It is contemplating granting Riyadh some sort of ‘ally’ status that goes beyond the 1980 Carter Doctrine that declared that the US would defend its vital national interests against any “outside force” in the Persian Gulf.

This could all backfire horribly for Washington and for Biden. Not only is MbS a problematic friend who flirts steadily with the Chinese and the Russians. So is Bibi Netanyahu, whose anti-democratic politics President Biden condemns outright.

The Biden-MbS-Bibi-Abu Mazen ‘quad’ do not exactly look like happy campers. Can they pull this off without doing too much collateral damage?

Q. Hold on. Aren’t you overlooking Netanyahu’s problematic coalition? How can it hold together while still allowing for even the slightest US- and Saudi-sponsored territorial or governance concession to the Palestinians?

A. Good question, especially in view of Netanyahu’s own relative weakness vis-à-vis the messianic and Kahanist right wing within his government. This leads us to contemplate three near-term scenarios regarding Israeli politics.

First--undoubtedly Netanyahu’s preferred scenario--he makes minimal concessions to the Palestinian Authority, dares coalition extremists Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich along with Likud extremists to topple the government over the concessions, and successfully calls their bluff.

This presupposes that both Biden and MbS are prepared to suffice with the most symbolic Israeli concessions, e.g., a symbolic territorial adjustment or yet another pledge not to annex. In this regard, it will be easier for Netanyahu to persuade MbS--after all, at the end of the day both are brutish and cynical Middle East rulers--than Biden, who tolerates them both for reasons of realpolitik and presumed strategic interest but has to justify all this to his electorate.

At some point, Netanyahu could conceivably even exploit the Israeli public’s overwhelming support for the normalization deal to ram through, in a legislative blitz, ‘judicial reform’ legislation that downgrades the High Court in favor of the legislative and executive branches and significantly damages Israeli democracy.

This scenario also supposes that the US-Saudi nuclear deal can either be tolerated by the Israeli security community, or that Netanyahu faces down his generals and Mossad and Shin Bet heads, accepts their resignations if it comes to that, and marches on with serious security concessions to the Saudis.

An alternative scenario, and probably a more likely one, is that no grand agreement is struck. Rather, the current gradual normalization continues. Israelis will be happy with incremental advances in economic, touristic and infrastructure ties, however gradual. The Saudis will help the PA financially. US-Saudi security ties will also be enhanced incrementally, without alarming Israel.

With the passage of time, neither Israelis nor Saudis will stick to their commitments to the US concerning, respectively, Palestinians and a nuclear program. And Washington (under a second Trump presidency?) will protest meekly at best.

Finally--a third scenario--the whole four-way deal could go up in smoke. The US Congress could balk at approving security concessions to the Saudis. Or Abu Mazen could depart the scene and pandemonium could erupt on the West Bank. Or Hamas and/or Hezbollah, propelled by Iran, could launch a major round of violence timed to thwart a US-Saudi-Israeli breakthrough.

Then too, Netanyahu could fail to obtain his coalition’s approval for concessions to the Palestinians. He might then dissolve the coalition and opt to ride a tide of public approval for a proposed Saudi deal by holding new elections, thereby postponing the deal. Alternatively MbS, ever mercurial and unpredictable, could back out.

Q. Bottom line?

A. A Saudi deal could be a historic turning point for the Middle East. But in which direction?