Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Sunday that “we will one day be able to have railways connect Saudi Arabia and Israel,” just hours after a New York Times piece suggested that the kingdom was expecting the Jewish state to make significant concessions to the Palestinians as a precondition for normalization.
While the train to normalization has long since left the station, the tracks pass through Washington. The Biden administration has been trying for months to have normalization linked to a breakthrough with the Palestinians, and that explains why the New York Times—the preferred outlet for the president—ran that piece. Essentially, in order to get Riyadh, Netanyahu will have to please Ramallah, the article said. But Jerusalem officials have been rejecting this idea, and the conventional wisdom is that the royal palace in Saudi Arabia has also rejected it.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who has unchallenged power in the kingdom, has on more than one occasion lashed out at the Palestinians. In fact, speaking of trains, he once told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that the “normalization train has left the station; it’s up to you if you want to get on board.” In other words, Riyadh is no longer willing to give Ramallah a veto on the thawing of relations with Israel—for itself or for the Gulf in particular. That is why Bin Salman agreed to have the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain sign the Abraham Accords with Israel, and has himself promoted ties with Israel unofficially.
In fact, according to one senior Israeli official, the current relationship with Riyadh amounts to “semi-normalization.” For Israel, it would not be worth it to pay in Palestinian currency just so they could be completed and become public, as this would be a dangerous transaction. This has been Netanyahu’s long-held view, and it is not going to change. Selling the farm in exchange for worthless documents signed with the Palestinians is something that he could have done long ago.
In other words, as far as Israel is concerned, peace with Saudi Arabia should be the culmination of a much different form of negotiations. The Saudis have recently presented their demands for bolstering ties with the United States, and they include far-reaching demands on economic, scientific and security matters. The Americans have a vested interest in such a deal to check the Chinese inroads in the region, and of course to ensure that they don’t lose a critical ally like Saudi Arabia. Normalization with Israel, they believe, will be a byproduct of such a large deal between Washington and Riyadh.
A senior Israeli official told Israel Hayom that “Netanyahu will not change his longstanding and principled stance on the Palestinian issue” for the sake of normalization with Saudi Arabia, despite reports of demands that “significant progress” be made in Israeli-Palestinian relations before such a deal is struck.
According to the official, “a breakthrough with Riyadh depends on the talks between the kingdom and Washington. This [progress with the Palestinians] is the consideration that the Saudis are demanding, but the issue is not a high priority for them.” The official added, “The two nations have already been maintaining unofficial ties, so for Israel there is no reason to take steps that could put it under threat in Judea and Samaria for things that already exist to a large extent.”
Will Jerusalem be willing to offer something to finalize a normalization deal? The official formula Israel has subscribed to since the new government was sworn in is that it will not “take steps that could preclude a future deal.” That is a very general statement; because no one knows what the contours of a future deal would look like, no one knows what steps could derail it.
But apart from that there is another thing: The Abraham Accords were born as a result of Israel’s willingness to have its application of sovereignty to Judea and Samaria put on hold rather than be implemented in 2020 as the first step of the Trump administration’s peace plan. According to that plan, once Israel applied sovereignty, the Palestinians would have four years to enter into negotiations with Israel—if they didn’t, Israel would be able to extend its sovereignty to other places. Those four years are set to expire in the summer of 2024.
What Israel can offer Biden and Saudi Arabia is to continue putting off the sovereignty issue for four more years, until the end of 2028. This is not an empty promise, as there is a very real chance of Donald Trump returning to the White House (as well as of other Republican victories). Thus, such a pledge would mean that even if a hawkish Republican president takes office in Washington, the fully right-wing government in Israel will not seize the opportunity to extend the country’s sovereignty, which some call “annexation,” despite the push to do so by many in right-wing circles.
Internal U.S. politics is very much part of this story. The conventional wisdom in Israel is that Biden will have to decide by December whether he is all-in on such a deal. After that, the presidential campaign will be in full swing. Moreover, a full-fledged treaty with Saudi Arabia will require two-thirds Senate approval. The administration is wary that the GOP is unlikely to be inclined to give Biden such a historic accomplishment.
The normalization train may have left the station, but it is now on stopover in Washington.
Originally published by Israel Hayom.