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Normalising relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia

September 3, 2018 at 3:32 pm

King of Saudi Arabia Salman Bin Abdulaziz (L) and Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman [Saudi Press Agency]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes every opportunity possible to boast that his country has reached an advanced stage of normalised relations with major Arab countries, in a clear reference to Saudi Arabia. Sources close to Netanyahu note that observers have only seen the tip of the iceberg, indicating the depth of the bilateral relations between Tel Aviv and Riyadh.

It is worth noting that Riyadh does not deny Israel’s confirmations of normalised relations with Saudi Arabia. Relations with Israel do not express a clear-cut Saudi strategy with clearly defined goals as much as it expresses the lack of foreign policy options. This means that the Saudi-Israeli rapprochement reflects Riyadh’s need for an ally with the weight and influence of Tel Aviv at a time when Saudi Arabia is sustaining successive defeats in the region. It is also unable to rein Iran in and limit the spread of its influence and power at the expense of the region in general.

There is no doubt that Israel gains from this rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. The attempts of Saudi leaders to find common ground with Israel means, among other things, that Israel has become part of the solution. This is an acknowledgment Israel has never received from an Arab party throughout the conflict over Palestine. Saudi leaders believe that the rapprochement with Israel would deter Iran, considering that Israel would fight Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia if it came down to it. However, in my opinion, this will not happen, as Israel’s interests in the conflict with Iran are clear and they do not include defending Saudi Arabia. There are red lines drawn by Israel and it is ready to use military force in the event that Iran crosses Israel’s red lines. This happened in Syria over the past seven years.

Netanyahu: Normalisation with Arabs then peace

In addition to Israel obtaining a critical acknowledgement from this central Arab country, the relationship with Israel will help it spread hopelessness and frustration in the hearts of the Palestinians, who Israel is trying to avoid giving rights to by means of reaching an understanding with Saudi Arabia. Israel is reading the regional scene well, as its leaders reached the conclusion that the Palestinian cause is at the bottom of the list of priorities for some Arab governments, beginning with Saudi Arabia, and therefore rapprochement with Saudi Arabia may prompt Saudi Arabia to use its financial influence to pressure the Palestinians to make free concessions to Israel.

A short while ago, Chief of Staff of the Israeli army and former defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon wrote an important article published by the Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies in which he spoke of Saudi Arabia’s motives for rapprochement with Israel. In his opinion, Saudi Arabia has no choice but to recognise its weakness in its confrontation with Iran, and therefore, has decided to reach a common strategy with Israel to confront Iran. According to this logic, Saudi Arabia could also contribute to peace between the Palestinians and Israel, but he did not tell us how! Israel rejects the Arab peace Initiative and rejects any solution leading to a two-state solution. In other words, Israel is looking for an Arab partner who would accept the liquidation and dismantling of the Palestinian cause so as to allow Israel to expand and preserve the Jewishness of the state at the same time.

Beyond free normalisation with Israel

To sum up, in terms of winning and losing, Israel will be the biggest winner in any normalised relation with a country of Saudi Arabia’s size and status. I do not believe Saudi Arabia’s agendas will include taking advantage of this rapprochement to convince Israel of the need to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead, Riyadh will comply with Tel Aviv’s position on the Palestinian issue, which the Israelis and Saudi leaders are well aware of.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Sharq on 3 August 2018

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.