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Progress toward a breakthrough in Saudi-Israeli relations: ‘Haste is from the Devil’

The positive and businesslike approach that marked the meeting of the Negev Forum Steering Committee and Working Groups in Abu Dhabi (January 9-10, 2023) proves that the drive to entrench and deepen the Abraham Accords is still ongoing despite the change of government in Israel. Hopes for a breakthrough in Saudi-Israeli relations are also still being nurtured, reflected in practical steps already taken. Moreover, the issue was raised with Jake Sullivan during his visit to Israel. Still, as the Arab saying goes, al-’ajalah min al-shaytan – haste is from the devil – and premature pronouncements have done more harm than good. The change will not come overnight: the Palestinian issue is still a stumbling block, and political dynamics in the Kingdom are complex, at least as long as King Salman still reins in some of his son’s ambitions.
Saudi Arabia and Israel flags Illustration

The realization of openly avowed relations with Saudi Arabia will require a shift of US attitudes toward the KSA, specifically security guarantees in the face of the Iranian threat – which Israel should also promote in its engagement with the Biden administration. It is also necessary to tone down the confrontation with the Palestinians. While not entirely beholden to the Palestinian cause, the Saudis are still wary of dropping the demand for “progress” toward the two-state solution. In any case, MBS – Prince Mohammed bin Salman – will find it difficult to make dramatic decisions during a violent confrontation or a crisis over the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif.

The Negev Forum Picks Up Momentum

The regional group, which continues to be called the Negev Forum, was established in Sde Boker in Israel’s Negev desert by the foreign ministers of the United States, Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco in March 2022. An extensive meeting of the Forum’s steering committee (at the level of directors-general of the foreign ministries) as well as its six working groups – on regional security, energy, food, and water security, tourism, health, as well as education and tolerance – with more than a hundred participants overall, was held in Abu Dhabi (January 9-10, 2023). Their work aimed to implement the Forum’s framework agreement on regional cooperation, adopted in November 2022, which identified practical avenues for joint action, including preparing the next foreign ministers’ summit in Morocco in March 2023.

Israeli participants from a variety of government ministries and agencies, as well as the National Security Staff, took part in the discussions and noted the optimistic spirit of cooperation (despite one failed attempt by an Arab delegation to put the political aspects of the Palestinian issue on the agenda), and the practical conclusions reached on a range of issues. The American backing – albeit qualified by the clarification that this is not a substitute for the two-state solution – helps establish the Forum as the formal framework representing the spirit of the Abraham Accords (Sudan, the fourth Arab party to the accords, has yet to formalize its relations with Israel). It is particularly significant that Egypt, which in past decades had often taken a very dim view of any Arab “normalization” with Israel, is now an active contributor to both the Negev Forum and another regional forum in which Israel is a member of good standing, the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF). The persistent Jordanian reluctance to join requires a proper discussion in a separate paper.

Of particular importance was that the meetings took place at all – in a positive atmosphere – despite the tension that attended the change of government in Israel. Added to that tension was the brief visit of Israel National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif compound (January 3, 2023), which the Forum’s participants roundly denounced. During the controversial vote at the UN General Assembly, which referred the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the International Court of Justice, all of Israel’s peace partners in the region (and some friends beyond it) voted in favor of the referral. Nonetheless, the Abu Dhabi gathering proved that the Abraham Accords could be consolidated and deepened in operational aspects, even when there is no “political horizon” to resolve the Palestinian problem.

The Saudi Question

Alongside the consolidation of the Accords, the question of their extension is clearly under review in Israel. That has come up in the Israeli political discourse: the possibility of a breakthrough – soon? – in relations between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). In the Knesset debate during the swearing-in of Israel’s new government (December 29, 2022), outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid openly referred to what he described as significant progress toward achieving normalization with Saudi Arabia. He claimed the talks were within weeks of fruition – which can be read as a bid to take historic credit if they succeed or to blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if they fail.

For his part, Netanyahu did not mention the KSA by name but did count the broadening of the Abraham Accords that he said would bring the Arab-Israeli conflict to an end – as one of the three fundamental goals of his incoming government (alongside the foiling of Iran’s nuclear weapon project, and domestically, the building of modern rail links that would erase the distinction between core and periphery). Only a breakthrough with Saudi Arabia, a key player in the Arab world, can realize such a far-reaching goal. Other members of his Likud party openly referred to the looming prospect of a breakthrough with the KSA.

Israeli government agencies have been maintaining clandestine liaisons with the KSA for years and have their assessment of where things stand (with caution as their keyword). However, others in recent times have the distinct impression that the KSA is indeed contemplating, in principle, the option of advancing toward normalization with Israel.

Speaking to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy – and bearing in mind WINEP’s well-established orientation – the crown prince laid out his conditions for doing just that: from his perspective, at least, there was nothing to be said about the Palestinian issue. The idea of diplomatic relations with Israel was thus aired as a real – albeit conditioned – possibility. A mission of retired US military commanders, organized by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) – which promotes a deeper understanding of Israeli and regional realities within the US defense establishment – visited the KSA recently[1], and gained the impression that the preparatory steps leading to a breakthrough are already ripening.

Several milestones have already been reached:

  1. While the UAE is very much an independent player, it is doubtful that Bahrain, deeply dependent on its Saudi neighbor, would have joined the Abraham Accords and lent its active support to their consolidation without the blessing of Riyadh. More generally, all Negev Forum participants on the Arab side seem to have the same view as MBS.
  2. Saudi Arabia did formally allow for Israeli commercial flights over its airspace (although Oman still holds up the practical implementation).
  3. The KSA had reaffirmed its commitment, first offered in 2015 when the issue arose, to respect the terms of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty regarding the freedom of navigation in the Straits of Tiran, even after the islands of Tiran and Sanafir would revert to Saudi sovereignty. (They were “lent” to Egypt in 1949 to help use them to lay siege to Israel’s southern trade route. In 2015, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi agreed to return them to Saudi rule). There are reports that Israeli tourists may even be allowed to visit the islands.
  4. Israeli business leaders took part in the sixth conference of the FII (Future Investment Initiative), the primary Saudi investment forum. Moreover, the chairman of the board of Israel’s Bank Leumi, Samer Hajj Yahia – the first Israeli of Arab origin to hold an important economic position at the national level – delivered a public address to the participants. There were growing indications that Saudi Arabia would welcome Israeli investments as part of its growth strategy.
  5. The role of Sheikh Muhammad al-Issa, the Saudi secretary-general of the World Muslim League, in promoting messages of tolerance and, specifically, awareness of the Holocaust (he paid a visit to Auschwitz with his Jewish counterparts). This issue also came up in the Negev Forum meeting.

All these are significant signals and indicators, as well as tests of the regime’s ability – i.e., that of MBS and the present establishment around him – to inch forward step by step toward normalization without clashing with an angry crowd. It also remains to be seen whether his father, King Salman – whose authority has not yet vanished – applies the brakes on his son’s adventurism. MBS has been working systematically to distance the KSA from its traditional Wahhabi identity and promote aspects of liberalization, particularly regarding gender. At the same time, it is tightening the grip of brutal repression against any signs of political dissent and spending (wasting?) huge funds on extravagant projects such as the futuristic city of Neom. As he told WINEP: any willingness to cross the threshold and deal openly with the establishment of relations with Israel would depend on the Biden administration changing its attitude toward Saudi Arabia and him personally.

What Do the Saudis Want From the US?

Tensions between Washington and Riyadh were clearly on display during the visit of President Xi Jinping of China to Saudi Arabia (December 8-9, 2022). The honors lavished on him stood in stark contrast with the much colder shoulder President Joe Biden received when he visited the Saudi port of Jeddah (July 15, 2022). Moreover, Biden failed to persuade his hosts to raise production and lower oil prices in the context of the War in Ukraine. Since then, efforts have been made to reduce the friction: in the US, a court has ruled, with the administration’s backing, that it is impossible to proceed with the prosecution of MBS for the murder of journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Still, the fundamental problem, generated by mutual suspicion and past grievances, is yet to be resolved.

In the WINEP session, three different Saudi expectations from the US were put on the table (none of them, as already asserted, even remotely related to Palestinian concerns):

  1. A NATO-style security guarantee for the future of Saudi Arabia. This is clearly driven by the Iranian threat and the abiding Saudi fear that the US will not deliver on its promises not to allow Tehran to obtain nuclear military capacity. In the absence of such a guarantee, the Saudis continue to nurture the dialog with America’s rival – the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – and even maintain a channel of communication with the Iranian regime itself over the future of Iraq.
  2. Supply of state-of-the-art weapons and munitions. That has traditionally been a concern for Israel but can be mitigated and squared with the administration’s obligation, under law, to sustain Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME).
  3. American consent for establishing a non-military nuclear project in the KSA. Once again, this raises complex questions but is subject to solutions such as firm inspection regimes and an external fuel cycle supply.

At least in principle, and based upon detailed inter-agency consultations led by the National Security Staff, Israel should carry forward the discussion of these issues. They began even before the new government came into power and continued during Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer’s talks in Washington and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s visit to Israel. It should remain high on the agenda of the dialog on regional challenges with Secretary of State Tony Blinken and with Biden.

The Impact of the Palestinian Situation – and the Need for Measured Progress

In any case, Israel must take into account that the diplomatic, political (i.e., intra-dynastic), and social dynamics in the Saudi Kingdom is highly complex – and not easy to discern for observers from the outside or even from within. As the Saudis themselves are ready to admit, it will not be easy to remove overnight the legacy of decades of the Saudi population being fed a poisonous flow of anti-Israel and antisemitic incitement. Over-eager Israeli pressure – let alone dragging the issue down into the stormy Israeli partisan political arena – would do more harm than good. It may even cause the king – or may have already done so – to curb his son’s freedom of action. The Arab saying, al-‘ajalah min al-shaytan – haste is from the devil – is an excellent guide to the insights necessary for conducting Israeli policy toward the Saudis at present.

True, the Saudi level of commitment to the Palestinian position is questionable. However, at least at the official level, the Foreign Ministry still upholds the traditional conditioning: no progress toward normalization with Israel without some progress between Israel and the PA and some sort of “horizon” for the two-state solution.

In practical terms, the Saudi-led API (Arab Peace Initiative) of 2002 is fading into irrelevance amid new regional realities. It is clear to the Saudis, as well as to the Abraham Accords nations and the Biden administration, that the present Israeli government – like its predecessor – cannot find a zone of any possible agreement with Palestinian demands in the foreseeable future. However, unlike the UAE, the Saudis are not ready to take the issue off the table; and the Palestinians welcomed their position.

Expectations in Israel should therefore be modified. Even slow and measured progress with the Saudis could run into severe difficulties if Israel comes to be perceived as moving from “conflict management” toward a decisive situation transformation, even at the cost of PA collapse and violence on the ground. This assessment also holds, obviously, for confrontations over the Temple Mount compound. If indeed the breakthrough with Riyadh is one of Israel’s fundamental goals at this time – and there are good strategic, diplomatic, symbolic, and economic reasons for this aspiration – this should be a factor in critical decisions taken in all political and professional deliberations on Israel’s national security policies. Caution and sound judgment are needed on issues that may have a bearing on the prospects for (measured) progress with the Saudis – and equally important, on the ability to persuade Washington to lend a hand in this effort.

[1] John Hannah, “Making peace with the Saudis – But not without Biden,” The Jerusalem Post, January 4, 2023

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

Photo: Shutterstock

Picture of אלוף משנה (בדימוס) ד"ר ערן לרמן

אלוף משנה (בדימוס) ד"ר ערן לרמן

Dr. Lerman is deputy director of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS). He was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for over 20 years. He also served for eight years as director of the Israel and Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee. He teaches in the Middle East studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem, and in post-graduate programs at Tel Aviv University and the National Defense College. He is an expert on Israel’s foreign relations, and on the Middle East. A third-generation Sabra, he holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, and a mid-career MPA from Harvard University.

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