(TPS) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is setting an ambitious diplomatic goal for his new term in office: signing a peace accord with Saudi Arabia. Behind the scenes, the initiative is picking up steam and could dramatically reshape the Middle East.
Israel and Saudi Arabia share several common interests, yet one rises above all others: the threat from Iran, especially its nuclear program.
While both Saudi Arabia and Iran are Muslim theocracies, the Saudis are Sunni while the Iranians are Shiite. Not only does Iran openly call for the destruction of Israel, it aspires to “export” its Shiite revolution to all Muslim countries – including Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and location of the Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.
Iran’s proxy militia in Yemen, the Houthis, have launched numerous deadly rocket and drone strikes on Saudi Arabia, causing enormous damage.
Against this backdrop, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, has shown interest in strengthening ties with Israel. The Crown Prince — who is 37 years old and often referred to by his initials MBS — has undertaken various initiatives to modernize the kingdom.
Yet his father, 87-year-old King Salman, continually vetoes full normalization of relations with Israel.
Nevertheless, small steps towards normalization are already taking place. Last summer, following US President Joe Biden’s visit to the region, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to commercial flights crossing to and from Israel, although Israeli planes still cannot land in the kingdom.
In addition, numerous Israeli businessmen have been issued special visas to visit Saudi Arabia. Frequent news reports say the two countries already cooperate on defense and national security issues, especially by sharing intelligence regarding Iran and its proxies.
“I believe a peace accord with Saudi Arabia will serve two purposes,” said Netanyahu in a December interview with Al-Arabiya, a Dubai-based international news channel. “It will be a huge step towards comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world, which will change our region in ways we can’t even imagine; and I think it will help, eventually, to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
In 2020, Israel signed the Abraham Accords – a series of normalization and peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. Sudan joined the accords in January 2021. Netanyahu hopes to dramatically expand the accords by bringing in Saudi Arabia, which is considered, alongside Egypt, a prominent leader of the Arab world.
In this way Netanyahu hopes to pressure the Palestinians to reach a peace agreement with Israel.
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Amir Avivi, Chairman of the Israel Defense and Security Forum, told the Tazpit Press Service: “Netanyahu and MBS are planning to bring a done deal and present it to President Biden when circumstances allow it.”
According to Avivi, “They will basically tell Biden, ‘You can take credit for this historic peace accord and maybe even get a Nobel Peace Prize, and in return the US must take a much harder line against Iran and its nuclear ambitions.’”
He added that “the Saudis will demand a complete vindication of MBS regarding the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which turned MBS into a persona non grata in Washington. In return, Riyadh will promise to increase its oil output to lower energy prices, which soared due to the war in Ukraine and caused significant damage to the US economy.”
But not all experts share that optimism.
“There is a significant gap between the optimism Netanyahu presents when he speaks about his ambition to achieve a peace accord with Saudi Arabia, and the actual chances of achieving it,” Dr. Yoel Guzansky told TPS.
Guzansky, a former Director of Iran and the Persian Gulf Desk in Israel’s National Security Council, is now a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies. He questioned whether Saudi leaders would risk their country’s prestige by normalizing ties with Israel.
“One has to remember that Saudi Arabia is a very conservative country – way more than the UAE, therefore any progress will be very different from what we saw in the Abraham Accords,” Guzansky stressed. “Riyadh keeps mentioning its commitment to the Palestinians and to a Palestinian state as a condition to every progress towards an agreement with Israel, and with the current coalition in Jerusalem its hard to see how the minimum requirements of the Saudis meet the maximum Israel is willing to give.”
He noted additional hurdles, including the fact that “King Salman is very conservative and committed to the Palestinian issue, so as long as he is around, it will be difficult to achieve a breakthrough. Also, the fact that Iran is threatening and putting heavy pressure on the Arab countries that signed the Abraham Accords might deter the Saudis.”
Another point that might discourage the Saudis, according to Guzansky, is “the fact that Saudi Arabia has a special role in Islam as protector of the holy sites. A peace accord with Israel might damage its image in the entire Muslim world – from Indonesia to Pakistan, not to mention the Arab countries.”
“I honestly hope I am wrong and Netanyahu is right, but to the best of my judgment it is not going to be simple at all.”
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