Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that he hopes to bring about “a full, formal peace” with Saudi Arabia, as Israel has done with other Gulf states. However, analysts told JNS that there are several significant obstacles to achieving full normalization with the Saudis.
According to Eytan Gilboa, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), the chances of peace between Jerusalem and Riyadh are “low.”
For starters, noted Gilboa, the Saudis have been consistent in their call for Palestinian statehood as a prerequisite to a regional peace, as per the Saudi’s 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. While the Abraham Accords have turned on its head the concept that peace with the Palestinians must come before peace with Arab states, “Saudi Arabia is much more involved in the Israel-Palestinian conflict compared to the other members of the Abraham accords,” he said.
Then there is the question of whether the United States, and specifically the Biden White House, will play the same role as the Trump administration did with the Abraham Accords, said Gilboa. Whether or not Saudi Arabia joins the Abraham Accords largely depends on the United States, he added.
The Abraham Accords, signed by Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020 (later joined by Morocco and Sudan), involve a trilateral relationship between the Muslim signatories, Israel and the United States. It was Washington which greased the wheels that made the breakthrough possible, according to Gilboa. Morocco, for example, wanted the United States to recognize its sovereignty in Western Sahara. The U.A.E. wanted American weapons. Sudan wanted to be dropped from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terror Organizations.
“So the key is not what Netanyahu is going to do, but what the United States is going to do,” and so far the Biden administration “has not been willing to make positive moves towards Saudi Arabia,” said Gilboa.
U.S.-Saudi relations have been strained since the 2018 murder in Istanbul of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi. U.S. intelligence agencies determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the killing, and President Biden vowed to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah.”
Although Biden visited Saudi Arabia in June, returning a measure of legitimacy to the regime, more recognition could be a concession Washington might make, said Gilboa. “They want American recognition of the pro-Western steps taken by MBS [Mohammed bin Salman]. This is important in Arab culture. This is something that Americans have never understood,” said Gilboa.
Joshua Teitelbaum, a professor in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University, agreed, telling JNS that “some kind of rehabilitation” might tempt the Saudi crown prince. “I think he would be very pleased to have an agreement signed on the White House lawn, if it got that far. But would a Democratic president sign an agreement with someone who’s been accused by the CIA of murdering a Washington Post journalist? That’s the question.”
Teitelbaum said he doesn’t believe a full peace agreement is likely, but expects “minor steps” to move relations forward. (Netanyahu may have admitted as much in his comments last week, saying, “I want to go as big as we can, but sometimes to take a long journey it takes smaller steps, and that’s not a problem.”) Teitelbaum said there might be announcements along the lines of the one made during Biden’s Middle East tour in July, regarding Israeli flights being allowed to traverse Saudi airspace. Perhaps the Saudis next might agree to allow Israeli Muslims making the pilgrimage, or hajj, to fly directly to Mecca on their Israeli passports, instead of traveling via Jordan, as is currently the case.
But regardless of these challenges, all the experts agree that peace with the Saudi kingdom is key.
“Saudi Arabia is the grand prize. It’s the richest country in the Arab world. It rules over the two holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina. It’s probably the most central player in the Arab world,” said Teitelbaum, reinforcing Netanyahu’s comment last week that “if we have peace with Saudi Arabia, we are effectively going to bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Ronnie Shaked of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem made the same point, telling JNS: “Saudi Arabia is a symbol, the representative of [the Islamic prophet] Muhammad on earth. They keep the holy places: the Kaaba in Mecca, and in Medina, the tomb of Muhammad. That’s the most important thing for every Muslim.”
Shaked is more optimistic about an agreement with the Saudis, due mainly to Iran. The threat posed by the Islamic Republic has forged a common interest between Jerusalem and Riyadh, he said. From Yemen, the Houthis, an Iranian proxy, attack Saudi Arabia. The Saudis need weapons, especially missiles, to counter Iranian drones in Yemen, and they need allies to confront Iran politically, to build a coalition against Tehran, he said.
More open relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia are definitely possible, according to Shaked. The Saudis will very likely ask for concessions, such as special status on the Temple Mount, and a promise from Netanyahu not to annex Judea and Samaria. The latter, said Shaked, will be easy for Netanyahu. “Netanyahu understands that we’ve been in the West Bank for 70 years, so in actual fact we have annexed it. We don’t have to declare it,” he said.
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