The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security
jns logo

Israel Kasnett / JNS 22.10.2020 – US President Donald Trump alluded to yet another Muslim nation about to make peace with Israel when he tweeted on Monday, “GREAT news! New government of Sudan, which is making great progress, agreed to pay $335 MILLION to U.S. terror victims and families. Once deposited, I will lift Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. At long last, JUSTICE for the American people and BIG step for Sudan!”

The last few weeks have seen much speculation that Sudan would normalize relations with Israel, which would subsequently remove the African nation from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Trump’s tweet seems to hint this is imminent. And if Sudan does indeed normalize relations with Israel, will Saudi Arabia follow suit?

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud hinted on Thursday that Israeli-Saudi normalization is unlikely any time soon.

“I believe that the focus now needs to be on getting the Palestinians and the Israelis back to the negotiating table,” the Saudi minister said in a virtual appearance hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank. “In the end, the only thing that can deliver lasting peace and lasting stability is an agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

Over the last few weeks, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been pushing the Saudis to normalize relations with Israel.

Meeting Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Pompeo said the agreement “contributed greatly to our shared goals for regional peace and security.”

“They reflect a changing dynamic in the region, one in which countries rightly recognize the need for regional cooperation to counter Iranian influence and generate prosperity,” said Pompeo. “We hope Saudi Arabia will consider normalizing its relationships [with Israel] as well.”

While Saudi Arabia appears more hesitant to make any bold moves, Bahrain and the UAE are swiftly moving forward with their new, open relationship with the Jewish state.

A high-profile delegation from the UAE landed in Israel on Tuesday. The Knesset last week voted to approve the agreement with 80 Members of Knesset voting in favor and 13 (the Arab List) against.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in his speech to the Knesset on Oct. 15 that “many Arab and Muslim countries want to get close to us. They see our military and intelligence, technological and economic power. They are changing their attitude toward us.”

In her speech to the Knesset plenum, Blue and White Party Knesset member Michal Cotler-Wunsh said “the paradigm shift taking place in the Middle East challenges the misconceptions we have all been held hostage to for years, potentially marking the official ‘beginning of the end’ of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Afterwards, she told JNS, “Those that continue to promote hate and extremism in the region are holding on to the old paradigm of the ‘three nos.’ However, the Abraham Accords reflect the views of the silent majority that has pivoted to the ‘three yeses’—yes to recognition, yes to negotiation, and yes to peace.”

‘Conversations have been positive on numerous fronts’

On Sunday, the first direct commercial flight from Israel to Bahrain took place as an Israeli delegation flew to Manama to sign a series of bilateral agreements.

Lior Hayat, spokesperson for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told JNS that the agreements included tourism, economics and trade, among others.

He said that the Chamber of Commerce of each country also met as a deliberate statement to emphasize that the agreements were not solely between the governments of both nations, but also between the people of each nation.

With regard to Sudan, Hayat said: “We are talking about it, but we are still waiting for Sudan to decide.”

Special advisor to the president Avi Berkowitz, who also flew to Manama with the Israeli delegation, said “peace is something everybody should celebrate and see as a positive thing for the world. It’s our sincere hope that no matter who wins the election, the Abraham Accords will continue to grow.”

Commenting on whether the Saudis would follow Bahrain and the UAE, Berkowitz replied that “that is a decision for them to ultimately come to. Our conversations with them have been positive on numerous fronts.”

“We’ve had very good discussions with them, but time will tell,” he added.

Last week, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to the United States, conducted a three-part exclusive interview with Al Arabiya, in which he called out the Palestinian leadership for its historical and ongoing “failures,” including its criticism of Gulf states following the UAE-Israel deal.

He also hinted at the possibility of normalized relations when he said that “we are at a stage in which rather than being concerned with how to face the Israeli challenges in order to serve the Palestinian cause, we have to pay attention to our national security and interests.”

‘No reason for them to rush into it’

Considering Prince Bandar’s public comments, it is likely that the UAE and Bahrain agreements served as a trial balloon for Saudi Arabia and acted as an indirect, but very clear, message to the Palestinians that the Arab world’s stance towards Israel is rapidly changing.

Joshua Krasna, an expert on strategic and political developments in the Arab world at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, as well as a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute, suggested to JNS that the Saudis will not normalize relations with Israel unless it is accompanied with the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“The Saudis are not going to go for it because all of the reasons to not go for it are still there,” he said.

Krasna suggested that the Saudis want to use normalization as leverage in the event of the installation of a more unsympathetic government in the United States.

“They might want to position themselves better vis-à-vis a [possible Joe Biden] administration they will see as hostile. There is no reason for them to rush into it now as opposed to in another six months or a year,” he said. “The benefits don’t outweigh the cost, and you can only do it once. It might make sense for them to hold onto it and can put it in the balance if there is a crisis in US-Saudi relations.”

According to Krasna, Saudi Arabia “has pretensions” to lead the Arab world. It also must take into consideration the highly vocal Wahhabi extremist ideology in the country that is completely opposed to any normalization with Israel, especially if it does not include the creation of a Palestinian state.

Krasna noted the current stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians, and in the view of the Saudis, “that’s not going anywhere right now.”

Clearly, since the Saudis realize this is not an option, normalizing relations with Israel is not an option either.

“The payback would need to be extremely high,” said Krasna. “If the Saudis go all the way, it could cost them. It would be difficult to back out of it. It is something you do once.”