ANALYSIS: Israel-Saudi Rapprochement on the Horizon

There are also signs that under the new Saudi leadership a different solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is developing.

By Yochanan Visser | | Topics: Saudi Arabia, Abraham Accords
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud
Illustration. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. Photo: EPA-EFE/HAYOUNG JEON

This analysis is about the now rapidly changing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which is undergoing a true metamorphosis under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This metamorphosis is intended to modernize the kingdom and will bring the society there more in line with what is common in modern states.

There has been extensive speculation ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia regarding an extension of the so-called Abraham Accords between Israel and some Arab Gulf states and Morocco.

Saudi Arabia could now also be on the verge of officially normalizing relations with Israel, it was assumed.

These speculations were fueled by a series of media reports about steep changes in Saudi Arabia’s attitude toward Israel. More on that later.

However, there are also indications that the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia will not be realized at this point in time.

This is mainly due to the position of the official ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Salman, who is said to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, and who still links the normalization of relations with Israel to peace between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs.

In other words, Israel must recognize a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria and withdraw from these areas, including Arab Jerusalem.

This position appeared to be confirmed by Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud who said at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year that official relations with Israel still depended on a peaceful settlement of the conflict with the Palestinian Arabs.

 

The vision of MBS

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (commonly referred to as MBS), however, seems to have a completely different view on this issue, openly saying in March that Israel was “a potential ally” and that both countries “share many interests that we can pursue together.”

That was during an interview with the American news outlet The Atlantic.

At the beginning of June, the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Arabia was expanding its secret contacts with Israeli leaders.

This was after Yair Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister and now caretaker prime minister, admitted that there had been secret talks between the United States, Israel and Arab Gulf states.

During those talks, the focus was on the possible normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Lapid’s comment came after numerous media reports about the Biden administration’s secret attempts to facilitate normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

 

Biden’s U-turn in the US relationship with Saudi Arabia

Biden has clearly backtracked on his previous campaign promise of isolating the Kingdom and MBS after it was determined that the de-facto leader of Saudi Arabia was behind the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Indeed, after international pressure, MBS has taken “responsibility” for the liquidation of the dissident journalist who was murdered by a team of Saudi agents in the country’s consulate in Istanbul at the beginning of 2018.

With Biden’s position in the US coming under heavy pressure because of many internal issues, success on the foreign policy front seems now more than welcome.

This, along with lowering the oil price and Iran’s mounting threat to world peace, seems to be the reasoning behind Biden’s political change of course.

 

Disagreement over handling the Iranian threat

At a joint press conference in Jerusalem on Thursday, Biden openly disagreed with Lapid on what to do next with Iran.

Lapid turned to Biden and said there must be a credible military threat to deter Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state.

Biden, however, said he still believed in diplomacy as the best way to curb Iran.

He could have added that he is flying to Saudi Arabia to officially pilot the country into the anti-Iran coalition consisting of Israel and moderate Arab countries.

Biden is pursuing a similar policy in the case of the war between Russia and Ukraine where he provides arms and other military aid to Kyiv, but rules out direct US military intervention.

 

Change in attitudes towards Israel

The US president will fly directly from Ben Gurion Airport to the port city of Jeddah on Friday.

Biden’s trip coincided with an official report that Saudi Arabia will open its airspace to Israeli airlines flying to the other Gulf countries or to Asia.

The move comes after Saudi Arabia previously authorized the issuing of visas for Israeli businessmen.

Dozens of Israeli businessmen have since taken advantage of this measure and ever since deals have been made on the supply of medical equipment, green energy projects, water harvesting equipment, and other Israeli inventions in the field of agriculture.

All these Israeli inventions and projects MBS needs to carry out his ambitious VISION 2030 project.

This huge economic project includes among other reforms and economic incentives the construction of the gigantic city of Neom in Tabuk province, in the western desert of Saudi Arabia, and along the Red Sea coast.

The $500 billion project includes solar energy projects, desalination plants and hydroponics-based agriculture.

Israel could make an important contribution to the realization of both VISION 2030 and Neom.

For this reason, ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly visited Neom in November 2020. where the current Israeli opposition leader met with MBS in the presence of Mike Pompeo, the former US Secretary of State.

According to Dr. Nirit Ofit, the CEO of the Israeli Chamber of Commerce for the Gulf States, Israeli private sector projects are booming in Saudi Arabia.

She attributes this to the fact that businessmen are not hindered by diplomatic hurdles but are solely driven by business interests.

 

Intelligence and security cooperation

Another indication that normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia is getting closer is the hitherto secret cooperation between the two countries on intelligence and other security-related matters.

This cooperation has increased significantly of late with Saudi sources reporting that a senior Israeli security official recently visited Riyadh.

President Biden is reportedly also to be accompanied by an unnamed Israeli security official on his trip to Saudi Arabia.

That official could be Mossad director David Barnea who has been in contact with colleagues from the Saudi foreign secret service for some time.

The same happened to intelligence and security cooperation with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates before the signing of the Abraham Accords when Yossi Cohen was the director of Mossad.

 

More indications of change

Recently, there have been increasing calls for the normalization of relations with Israel on state-controlled social media and in the mainstream press in Saudi Arabia.

There are also signs that under MBS a different vision about the possible solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is developing.

For example, the news site Al Arabiya which is owned by the House of Saud, recently featured an article by Ali Shihabibi, an advisor to MBS, in which the classic view of the so-called two-state solution was abandoned.

Instead, Shihabibi proposed that Jordan form a confederation with the Palestinian Authority and would control the territories under its control.

According to this idea, which Shihabibi would not have published without first consulting MBS, Israel would give up its claim to the Jordan Valley in exchange for sovereignty over all of Jerusalem except for the Haram al-Sharif, the Temple Mount where some Muslim holy sites are located.

According to the MBS confidante, after such a peace deal there was no reason for Israel to fear for its security because, as Shihabibi explained, Jordan had proved able and willing to maintain peace and tranquillity along its border with Israel over the past 55 years.

Shihabibi wrote that he thinks the Palestinian Arabs would have no reason to reject his plan because they would finally get a normal perspective in life.

Arabs in Jerusalem had already indicated that they would like to continue living under Israeli rule, he said basing his conclusion on a recent poll among these Arabs.

More than half of those interviewed said they would be interested in obtaining an Israeli passport.

Under MBS, Saudi Arabia is expected to play a more important role in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, which has been stalled now for years.

The same goes for Israel’s further integration into the Middle East.

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