ANALYSIS: Israeli-Saudi Normalization Next?

Saudi Arabia has a lot to gain from Israeli know-how, but full normalization of relations remains a distant hope

By Yochanan Visser | | Topics: Saudi Arabia, Abraham Accords
Photo: Creative Commons

At the end of November 2020, a historic meeting took place between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel who met each other in the new Saudi city of Neom along the coast of the Red Sea.

Israeli media reported at the time that the meeting between the two leaders was about normalization of relations between the two countries, echoing the so-called “Abraham Accords” between Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates which resulted in peace agreements at the beginning of November 2020.

However, later it turned out that MBS and Netanyahu had focused on the increasing threat that Iran presents to both Saudi Arabia and Israel and not on the normalization of the relations between the countries.

The issue of normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel is highly controversial in the oil-rich kingdom, mainly due to disagreements between the Crown Prince and his father King Salman, who is reportedly not in good health but is still the supreme leader.

King Salman and his advisers maintain the old view that Israel must first resolve the conflict with the Palestinian Arabs according to the guidelines of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

According to this line of thinking, Israel must withdraw to the “borders” that existed prior to the 1967 Six-Day War and return East Jerusalem to the Arabs, something that is unacceptable to every Israeli government, including the left-wing political establishment in the Jewish state. Only the Joint Arab List and the far-left Meretz party support this idea.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, however, has a different view about a future solution to the century-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict and has repeatedly criticized the Palestinian leadership for its blunt refusal to start peace talks with Israel that should be based on an out-of-the-box approach.

MBS held talks with leaders of Jewish communities on a month-long tour of Europe and the United States a few years ago and repeatedly criticized the Palestinian Authority for failing to take advantage of opportunities to initiate a dialogue with Israel on a peace deal.

MBS also worked closely with Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, the advisers of outgoing President Trump, on the Middle East and issues related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and reportedly was instrumental in drawing up Trump’s vision on peace and prosperity in the Middle East.

However, in Saudi Arabia’s political establishment there is still strong opposition to any rapprochement between Israel and the Kingdom, which has always pursued a conservative policy regarding any ties to the Jewish state and was a dominant force in an Arab League that has always been against total normalization in relations with Israel.

This problem was best reflected when a Zoom conference was held in Bahrain on Sunday which was also attended by Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

The conference organized by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, was also attended by Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal, who acts as a foreign affairs adviser in the Kingdom.

Before Ashkenazi delivered his speech, bin Faisal accused Israel of pursuing an “Apartheid policy” reflected in the construction of the security fence around Judea and Samaria and said that all Israeli governments were “the last of the colonizing powers in the Middle East.”

The Saudi Prince also accused Israel of randomly destroying homes (of Palestinian Arabs) and “assassinating whoever they want.”

Ashkenazi responded by saying that he “regretted” bin Faisal’s comments which he said went against the atmosphere of change currently taking place in the Middle East.

“The Middle East today is divided into two camps, those that have chosen peace and want a better future for their children of economic prosperity and security and on the other side, those led by Iran and its proxies who have chosen the path of war violent extremism and terrorism,” Ashkenazi said.

Bin Faisal’s comments make it clear that there is still a long way to go before normalization in relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia can be achieved.

In fact, currently, only common interests bind Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The two countries have only common interests such as confronting Iran. However, Saudi Arabia can also benefit from Israeli high-tech, innovative agriculture, and water technology, among other things.

It was no coincidence that Netanyahu and bin Salman met in Neom, the futuristic city currently under construction at the coast of the Red Sea. The giant city will even extend into Egypt by the construction of a huge bridge over the Red Sea and will stretch into Jordan as well.

The Neom project is part of bin Salman’s vision for the future of Saudi Arabia and must be completed before the country’s oil wells dry up.

Saudi Arabia needs Israel’s innovative technology to make the project a reality and can also benefit from Israel’s military know-how in the face of the growing threat from Iran.

The overt criticism of Turki bin Faisal at the Manama conference could also be related to irritation over the leaking of information by the Israeli media about the secret meeting between Netanyahu and bin Salman.

Another scheduled secret meeting between Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and Prince Mohammed bin Salman was canceled by the Saudi government last week.

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