analysisMiddle East

Israeli, Saudi sources disagree on Palestinian linkage

Riyadh will not let the Palestinian issue prevent it from achieving its goals, Israeli sources say.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas meets with members of the PLO Executive Committee in Ramallah on Oct. 3, 2019. Photo by Flash90.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas meets with members of the PLO Executive Committee in Ramallah on Oct. 3, 2019. Photo by Flash90.
Baruch Yedid

In recent days, officials in Jerusalem and Washington have hinted at progress in normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. On Sunday, Israeli media even reported that the country’s opposition parties are open to supporting a Saudi peace agreement if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners object to Saudi demands for concessions to the Palestinians.

However, Persian Gulf sources close to Saudi decision-makers and sources close to Netanyahu have voiced conflicting views regarding the Palestinian linkage. According to the Gulf sources, the Saudis are conditioning normalization with progress on the Palestinian front, but the Israeli sources say Riyadh has made no such stipulations.

“Progress on the Palestinian issue is a necessary condition because Saudi Arabia will bring the entire Arab and Islamic world to the table, while Israel must ask all of them what it can bring to the same table,” a Gulf source close to Saudi decision-makers said.

A second Gulf source close to Saudi decision-makers elaborated, saying, “The new Saudi policy, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is a policy of peace, zero conflicts and noninterference in other matters, and within its framework the kingdom is determined to close the Palestinian-Israeli case as well, and certainly if it intends to end Iran’s role in Lebanon.”

According to him, Saudi Arabia is determined to act to “free our hearts from Iran, but it will not be able to move forward as long as Israel controls the Palestinians.”

He added, “Peace and tolerance are the right way to end all conflicts in the region, but these will only be possible under reasonable and clear conditions.”

This official stressed that “the conditions that Saudi Arabia sets for an agreement to establish relations with Israel include progress on the Palestinian issue and there is no reason to be surprised by this, since the kingdom demonstrated the seriousness of its intentions with the acceptance of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, after refraining from doing so for years, so as not to place itself at the forefront of contacts with Israel. A significant step has been taken.”

He was referring to Egypt’s transfer of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in 2022. Finalizing the transfer required Israeli approval because the islands were demilitarized in accordance with the 1979 Camp David Accords. The islands are in Saudi territorial waters but had been leased to Egypt when Israel captured them during the Six-Day War of 1967.

The Saudis wanted the islands returned as part of an ambitious plan to build a futuristic city called Neom. The islands were returned in July 2022 and one month later, the kingdom opened its airspace to Israeli commercial overflights.

Israel: No such stipulations

On the other hand, sources close to Netanyahu say the Saudis have made no stipulations and that comments to the contrary are posturing.

Moreover, the Saudis are more interested in American security guarantees against Iran, advanced weapons, and U.S. assistance in building a civilian nuclear program. Israel currently opposes Saudi access to advanced U.S. weapons. However, the United Arab Emirates began receiving advanced U.S. and Israeli weapons after signing the Abraham Accords in 2020.

The Saudis will not let the Palestinian issue prevent them from achieving these goals, the Israeli sources say.

Linkage would have a profound effect on the Israeli political scene.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that normalization would require an explicit Netanyahu promise not to annex areas of Judea and Samaria, among other measures that his coalition partners would not accept.

The opposition parties have long vowed not to sit in a unity government with Netanyahu as long as he is on trial for corruption, but opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz are prepared to support a peace deal from outside the coalition if they feel the agreement is in Israel’s interest.

The Times also reported that Washington wants the Saudis to finance a significant aid package for Palestinian institutions, end the war in Yemen and scale back the kingdom’s growing relationship with China.

But the widely held perception among Saudis is that Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners are against normalization.

Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi researcher specializing in Israeli matters at Project SEPAD (the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation project), a British-based think tank, said, “I believe that the internal situation in Israel is not conducive to normalization with Saudi Arabia.” He added that this is the prevailing view within the kingdom.

Alghashian also said that President Joe Biden is pushing normalization for his election campaign, or “politicizing normalization,” as he put it.

“My understanding of American opinion is that the possibility of normalization is remote, but after weeks, the American president wants to address this speculation for his election campaign,” he said.

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