In this episode of “Our Middle East,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs President Dan Diker speaks with U.S.-based Middle East analyst Irina Tsukerman of the Arabian Peninsula Institute about the “security mayhem” of the Middle East in light of recent developments.
That includes the China-brokered Iran-Saudi rapprochement and current American moves towards rapprochement, with the Biden administration sending envoys to speak with the Saudis in clandestine talks rumored to focus on prospects for normalization of relations between the kingdom and Israel.
Is Saudi-Israel normalization really possible?
Although there has been Saudi-Israeli cooperation militarily and in cyber security, Tsukerman is cynical about diplomacy between these states: “Actual normalization is not happening. There has not been any direct discussion between Israel and Saudi Arabian officials to this day,” she says.
She attributes this partly to the kingdom’s normalization of relations with Iran but even more to a lack of political will in Riyadh due to tribal opposition to formal normalization with Israel, which she calls a “fantasy.”
“I would be very careful about engaging in optimism on this issue, and any moment things can change,” she says, citing Iran as a primary challenge to such a breakthrough, as well as Saudi and other regional connections, coupled with the interests of China and Russia.
Would normalization be good for Israel?
Diker suggests that open Saudi-Israeli normalization would be risky for Israel. Tsukerman says normalization talk involving a U.S.-brokered resolution is unrealistic: “This continuing discussion is not only a fantasy but a provocation. … The continuing obsession with optics… distracts from real security threats at the expense of regional security,” she says.
“Talk of normalization is a diversion from all the security challenges,” she states, citing Iran’s continued chemical-weapons production; the unending Iranian involvement in the Houthi war against the Gulf states; and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s inclusion in the recent Arab League summit. Diker adds that Iran and Saudi Arabia also have engaged in economic and technological cooperation, deepening regional security dangers.
Of America’s role, Tsukerman says that the “intelligence apparatus in the U.S. has shown limited understanding of the interests of states such as religion and culture. She adds that U.S. leaders tend to put “all its eggs in one basket” by ignoring the diversity and complexity of Saudi and Iranian power politics. “Political blindness, arrogance, ineptitude and disregard have colored the policy of multiple administrations,” she says.
Are the Saudis actually interested?
Tsukerman points out that the Saudis have maximized the financial benefits of the Iranian rapprochement, and though they are known to be “extraordinarily slow in diplomatic relations,” have been in a “rush to establish relations with Iran.”
She adds that a rhetorical elevation of Saudi Arabian media and foreign-policy talk reveals that the Saudis are no longer producing Israel-friendly media, and that the country’s conservative and anti-Israel old guard—associated with Islamic conservatism—has come to dominate the narrative. “Religion is a primary tool; religion manipulates minds,” she says, citing Qatar’s criticism of Saudi Arabia’s allowing some Jews and Israelis to visit.
They also discuss the role of China and Russia in the ever-changing rules on the ground.