While it is impossible to make at least any positive dynamics on the Israeli-Palestinian track, President Joe Biden Administration has recently been actively seeking to expand the Abraham Accords to confirm its still remaining, albeit small, influence in the Middle East.
To that end, Washington has been pushing hard in recent months for Saudi Arabia to join the agreements between Israel and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. The US is confident that establishing diplomatic relations between Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, would boost normalization between Israel and other Arab and Muslim states.
Let’s not forget that since Donald Trump’s defeat in the presidential election, Saudi Arabia has frozen contacts on the Israeli track, clearly intending to wait and use the peace agreement with Israel to cement relations with the Biden Administration, the latter having become strained due to Washington’s tough stance on human rights abuses in the Kingdom. Primarily because of the assassination of the Saudi regime’s opponent, journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi.
Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor to President Joe Biden, ultimately raised the issue in a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on September 27. The Prince, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia under the aged and ailing King of Saudi Arabia, Salman Al-Saud, has not rejected the idea of normalization of relations with Israel. At the same time, Sullivan was told in Riyadh that the process would take a long time and was listed several preconditions for rapprochement with the Jewish state. One of the main preconditions is an improvement of relations between the US and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There won’t be any normalization of relations as long as the Palestinian issue remains unresolved. Unlike Donald Trump, Biden has so far refused to meet the Prince or even call him by phone, limiting himself to a phone call to King Salman, publicly condemning the journalist’s assassination as well as the arrests of human rights activists.
It should be noted that Washington has been trying to convince the Saudis to establish relations with Tel Aviv for more than ten years. In 2009, President Barack Obama asked the late King Abdullah to take steps in this direction, thus giving the green light to other Arab countries. The Trump Administration has also put a lot of effort into this. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman initially showed readiness for rapprochement with Israel, yet his father, King Salman, insists on continuing the Kingdom’s traditional policy towards Palestine, at least until the State of Palestine is established, clearly fearing internal and external reactions from Arab-Muslim society. The aged King Salman still reigns, though he no longer rules. He wants to walk away clean in the eyes of the Arab population at large, without tarnishing himself by abandoning the “Israel is the enemy of the Arabs” formula.
But all the same, today or tomorrow, the burden of deciding to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel will fall on the heir to the throne, for which Mohammed bin Salman is in principle quite ready and sees no other way than to be friends. Especially since the consequences of the Emirates’ reconciliation with Israel showed that there was nothing wrong with the Abraham Accords – quite contrary, the Emirates won and are now fully reaping the benefits. After all, normal relations with Israel are a pass to the “privileged league” where geopolitical issues worth billions of dollars are decided, and the petrodollars of the Arab elites can bring them further multiplication and enhanced international status.
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia understands all this very well and is already prepared to change the attitude of the old elites stuck in the twentieth century. Additionally, given the centuries-long confrontation between Sunni and Shiite Islam, he doesn’t want to forget the ever-present Iranian threat. And negotiations on specific areas, which Riyadh is forced to conduct with Tehran, means a temporary tactical weakening of confrontation between two Islamic religious authorities to get a little respite and comprehend the vectors of a new policy in the Middle East. To receive certain dividends from those who claim a leading role in the region today, i.e. not only Washington but also Beijing and Moscow. And in these circumstances, Israel could prove to be a good ally for Saudi Arabia, especially since mutual sympathies between the Saudis and Israelis have existed for a long time, as have joint actions against the Iranians, which to a large extent already predetermine the alliance between the two countries.
In addition, by withdrawing US missile defense systems from the Prince Sultan airbase 115 km from Riyadh, Washington further pushed the Saudis to step up military cooperation with Israel and acquire Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system as an alternative to the US THAAD and Patriot systems. After all, Saudi Arabia needs a reliable anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense against a background of Yemeni rebels’ constant attacks on oil facilities. Today, only Russia, Israel, and China can provide this as well as the United States. Against this backdrop, the Saudis are already considering the purchase of Rafael’s Iron Dome systems, which have proven themselves against short-range missiles, or Barak anti-aircraft missile systems from Israel Aerospace Industries. And this is one more crucial step towards the future normalization of relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv. Washington’s role in this rapprochement is frankly spoken of in Israel today, reporting that an agreement for Riyadh to acquire Israeli air defenses could only be concluded with the US approval.
But this is not the only area where a genuine rapprochement between the two countries could be seen in recent times. Saudi Arabia has already agreed to allow Israeli planes to fly over its airspace, cutting routes to the Persian Gulf, India, and other parts of Asia. In addition, some trade deals between the two countries have already started with the participation of the UAE and especially Bahrain as part of the Abraham Accords concluded earlier.
Most certainly, Saudi Arabia is Israel’s most valuable target for the subsequent peace agreement. Beyond the purely political and reputational effects, opening up the Saudi market with its 33 million inhabitants and high purchasing power is of great importance to Israeli companies and exporters.
Therefore, it is understandable that Israel would have to make certain concessions in Riyadh’s preliminary demands for the normalization of relations. One option could be for Israel to make some concessions to the Palestinians so that the Saudis can establish ties, such as in July 2020, when Israel gave up the possibility of annexing the territories of Judea and Samaria in exchange for the Abraham Accords and normalization of relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Such a move by Israel towards resolving the conflict with the Palestinians will be necessary to allow and legitimize Saudi Arabia’s decision to join the normalization process and establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
The upcoming 20th anniversary of the Arab Peace Initiative provides an opportunity for such developments, and preparations for achieving that objective should begin now. Recall that the Arab Peace Initiative was adopted by the Arab League in Beirut on March 28, 2002, and aims to achieve comprehensive peace with Israel and end the Arab-Israeli conflict. The primary condition is Israel’s withdrawal from the territories it occupied in 1967 (including the Golan Heights and Shebaa Farms) and its recognition of Palestine in the West Bank.
Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.