The Middle East, a region historically synonymous with conflict and tension, is now witnessing a remarkable and unexpected shift in its geopolitical landscape. A groundbreaking alliance is emerging, as the conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia signals its willingness to forge an unprecedented peace deal with Israel—a country that, until recently, was commonly referred to in Saudi texts as the ‘Zionist Enemy.’ This development has garnered the moniker ‘the deal of the century,’ a phrase echoing the aspirations of a grand Middle East transformation, one where Arab nations unite with Israel, promising to bring long-elusive peace to a historically turbulent region.
At the heart of this new alliance is Saudi Arabia, a nation that has swiftly risen to the forefront of Arab leadership, backed by immense oil-generated wealth and substantial soft power. This realignment of regional powers is driven by a convergence of interests. Saudi Arabia and Israel, two nations with contrasting histories, now find themselves with parallel concerns: Iran and the challenge posed by Sunni Islamist political opposition. These shared concerns have paved the way for an unexpected partnership(Al-Jazeera, 2023).
Rumors of Normalization
The 78th General Assembly Session of the United Nations witnessed a remarkable turn of events when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a historic address on September 22, 2023, held up a map to showcase what he referred to as the ‘New Middle East.’ This presentation, aimed at highlighting growing relations and the prospect of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, instantly ignited controversy. What made this map profoundly contentious was its complete omission of any trace of Palestine. The area highlighted in blue, meant to represent Israel, included not only its recognized boundaries but also the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, and even the Syrian-occupied Golan Heights. This omission stirred considerable anger among the international community, as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s presentation appeared to declare the goal of eliminating Palestine from the geopolitical landscape, underscoring the complex challenges this new alliance must navigate. He also said “There’s no question the Abraham Accords heralded the dawn of a new age of peace. But I believe that we are at the cusp of an even more dramatic breakthrough, a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia”(AP news, 2023)At the same time, Washington seems more than ready to welcome and support the prospect of a Saudi-Israel alliance.
Historical perspectives on Saudi-Israeli relations
Historically, Saudi-Israeli relations have been marked by suspicion, animosity, and a lack of formal diplomatic ties. Saudi Arabia, as a predominantly Muslim nation, has had a longstanding stance of non-recognition of the State of Israel due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its occupation of Palestinian territories. The two countries have been on opposing sides in the broader Arab-Israeli conflict, with Saudi Arabia supporting the Palestinian cause.
The historical context of Saudi-Israel relations is complex. Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has never established formal diplomatic relations with Israel. In fact, Saudi Arabia voted against the United Nations partition plan for Palestine in 1947, which led to the creation of Israel. There are several factors that contribute to the absence of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries. One factor is the presence of anti-Semitism within Saudi Arabia. Anti-Semitic sentiments have been prevalent in the country, and this has influenced the official stance toward Israel. Another factor is the close relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Historically, the United States has been a strong ally of Israel, and Saudi Arabia, as a key regional player, has maintained a delicate balance in its relations with both countries. The Saudi leadership has been cautious about openly embracing Israel due to concerns about public opinion and potential backlash from the Arab and Muslim world.
The Palestinian issue plays a significant role in the Saudi-Israel relationship. Saudi Arabia has been a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, advocating for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Saudi government has emphasized the need for a just and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before any normalization of relations can take place. However, it is worth noting that despite the absence of formal diplomatic relations, there have been reports of clandestine cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel over the years. These reports suggest that behind-the-scenes collaboration has occurred, particularly in areas of shared security interests and intelligence sharing.
A Timeline of Warming of Arab-Israel Relations
- 1979: Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
- 1994: Jordan signs a peace treaty with Israel.
- 2002: The Arab Peace Initiative is proposed by Saudi Arabia, which offers Israel normalized relations with all Arab states in exchange for a full withdrawal from the occupied territories.
- 2018: Saudi Arabia allows Air India to use its airspace for flights to Tel Aviv.
- 2020: The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain sign the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations with Israel. Sudan and Morocco followed suit later that year.
- 2021: Saudi Arabia allows Israeli commercial planes to fly over its airspace.
Role of the United States of America in Warming Relations
In this particular strategic realignment, the role of the USA is quite important so much so that the Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared it as a “national security issue” in June 2023. Israel is its main and closest ally and the USA aims to integrate Israel into the region by promoting the normalization of relations. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is also a close ally, especially under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman whose policy has been focused on achieving strategic autonomy as well as trying to re-brand the kingdom as a more open nation by leveraging soft power. Simultaneously, it has also re-established relations with Iran after years of enmity that again, is strictly against Israel and has been found funding Hamas to fight against Israeli occupation (Ammar, 2023).
Just like how it facilitated the warming of relations between other Arab countries through the Camp David Accords, it has helped KSA in this regard. In September 2023, NBC News reported that the US was making progress towards a landmark agreement that would see Saudi Arabia normalize relations with Israel in exchange for a US defense pact and help develop its own civilian nuclear program. The proposed deal would be a major foreign policy victory for President Joe Biden and would represent a tectonic shift in the region after more than half a century of conflict and animosity. However, significant hurdles remain, including Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. The deal would see the Palestinians granted as-yet undefined land in the West Bank, but huge questions persist over what it would mean for their future. If the deal were to come together, U.S. officials believe it would be early next year, before the presidential election campaign makes it difficult to get 67 votes in the Senate, which has to ratify the defense treaty and would need to approve helping the Gulf kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in his civilian nuclear ambitions. Although the US has been a vocal critic of Netanyahu’s government on occasion, the Israeli Prime Minister has praised Biden’s involvement in brokering this peace deal and said that American efforts for this alliance have been indispensable.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) reacted strongly to the Camp David and Abraham Accords, vehemently expressing that the signatory Arab states were betraying the Palestinian cause and their people. The normalization with Israel was seen as a betrayal of long-standing solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for statehood. However, as the geopolitical landscape evolved, so did the Palestinian stance. Recognizing the importance of its support in Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of regional acceptance, the PA adopted a more pragmatic approach in 2021.
Conditions for Cooperation
During official visits to Riyadh, Palestinian officials laid out specific conditions for their cooperation:
- Transferring parts of the West Bank currently under full Israeli control (known as Area C under the 1990s Oslo Peace Accords) to the governance of the Palestinian Authority
- A “complete cessation” of Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank
- Resuming Saudi financial support to the PA, which slowed in 2016 and stopped completely three years ago, to the tune of around $200m (£160m) per year
- Re-opening the US consulate in Jerusalem – the diplomatic mission to the Palestinians – that was shut down by President Donald Trump
- Resuming US-brokered negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians from where they stopped under then-Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014. (BBC, 2023)
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Saudi Arabia’s Leadership
The United Nations has classified Israel as an occupying state in the Palestinian territories, emphasizing that its actions, including occupations and annexations following the 1967 Six-Day War, are in violation of international law.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman faces a delicate balancing act when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While his personal convictions may drive him to advocate for Palestinian interests, the perception of his efforts within the Arab world is of great significance to his leadership. His leadership isn’t solely based on Saudi Arabia’s transformation but also on his aspiration for broader regional and international influence. Abandoning the Palestinian cause entirely would not align well with the sentiments of the region, and he must consider a wider constituency in his decision-making process.
Saudi Arabia’s Security and Weapons Demands
A significant challenge in the evolving Saudi-Israeli alliance is the list of demands made by Saudi Arabia to the United States. Riyadh seeks a security guarantee from the U.S., anticipating potential threats or attacks. Additionally, Saudi Arabia aims to secure greater access to advanced U.S. weaponry and is in search of support for a civilian nuclear program.
These demands are expected to face resistance from various members of Congress. Progressive left-wing Democrats and hard-right Republicans share a desire for reduced American involvement in foreign affairs. Even if some of the demands, such as a security guarantee and enhanced weapons access, are met, the prospect of U.S. support for a Saudi nuclear program presents a more formidable challenge. Saudi Arabia is not inclined to accept the U.S. government’s Section 123 agreement, known as the “gold standard” of civilian nuclear partnerships, which it already has in place with the United Arab Emirates. This agreement prohibits countries from pursuing dual-use technologies by restricting uranium enrichment and fuel reprocessing.
The Saudi government has expressed its reluctance to adhere to this particular agreement, raising concerns among lawmakers and non-proliferation experts, especially in light of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the long-standing Yemen war, now in its eighth year. Further complicating any potential deal is the fact that Saudi Arabia possesses its own natural uranium resources and intends to extract and process them independently. The resolution of these demands holds the potential to significantly impact the likelihood of normalization in the region (Turak, 2023).
Outbreak of War and Stalling of Peace Talks
The future of Saudi-Israel normalization is uncertain. In October 2023, Saudi Arabia suspended talks on normalization with Israel amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza. The decision comes as the Saudi government recalibrates its foreign policy in the wake of continued conflict in Gaza. Saudi Arabia has decided to stall its diplomatic efforts to normalize relations with Israel due to the recent violence between Hamas militants and Israeli forces. This move is seen as a setback for President Joe Biden’s Middle East ambitions. The Saudi officials have conveyed their decision to the United States, although it’s characterized as a temporary pause rather than a complete termination of the diplomacy. The Biden administration had been pushing for normalization talks to continue even amidst the ongoing violence, which was triggered by a Hamas attack on Israel, resulting in a significant loss of lives. Israel has responded with airstrikes on the Gaza Strip and is considering a potential ground operation against Hamas. In addition, Saudi Arabia is engaging with Iran to mitigate the escalating violence in the region (Dagher& MacDonald, 2023)
The evolving dynamics of Saudi-Israeli relations, once characterized by historical enmity, reflect a transformative shift in the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape. The prospect of a groundbreaking alliance has emerged, largely propelled by shared concerns over Iran and Sunni Islamist opposition. The role of the United States in fostering this alignment is pivotal, with potential agreements and diplomatic efforts to solidify the partnership. However, the path to normalization faces significant challenges, including the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the delicate balance Saudi Arabia’s leadership must maintain. The recent suspension of talks amid ongoing regional conflicts underscores the fragility of this evolving alliance and the uncertain path toward lasting peace in the region.
Turak, N. (2023, September). A Saudi-Israel deal could dramatically reshape the Middle East — but don’t expect it anytime soon. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2023/09/01/saudi-arabia-israel-deal-could-dramatically-reshape-the-middle-east-.html
BBC. (2023, September 6). Palestinians set out terms for agreeing to the historic Saudi-Israeli deal. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-66734638
Al-Jazeera. (2023, September 21). What’s happening with normalizing ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel? Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/9/21/whats-happening-with-normalising-ties-between-saudi-arabia-and-israel
AP news. (2023, September 22). Netanyahu tells the UN that Israel is ‘at the cusp’ of a historic agreement with Saudi Arabia. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/article/un-israel-netanyahu-politics-4d07d9fd0413c6893d1ddfb944919ae0
Ammar, H. (2023, October 1). It’s happening: The Saudi-Israel peace deal. Retrieved from https://www.paradigmshift.com.pk/saudi-israel-peace-deal/
Dagher, S., & MacDonald, F. (2023, October).Bloomberg. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-10-13/saudis-put-israel-normalization-on-hold-in-blow-to-us-goals