It is inconceivable that last week’s Negev Summit could have taken place without Saudi Arabia not only knowing about the meeting but also blessing it. Since the Abraham Accords were signed, in the name of peace between Arabs and Israel, Saudi Arabia has been the silent party and the virtual signatory of the Accords, waiting for the right moment to make its position public. The Accords, in part, are as much about building an anti-Iran coalition as they are about regional peace, while sidelining the oppressed Palestinians. To counter Iran with Israeli cooperation, the Saudis do not have to openly normalise ties with Israel.
One of the reasons the Kingdom still prefers to stay in the shadows for now, is the fact that it was the only Arab country whose name is associated with the peace initiative that was adopted as a Pan-Arab idea for permanent peace.
Even Egypt and Jordan, as earlier normalisers, did not offer the rest of the Arab world their peace models with Israel, to adopt as a common Arab League policy, but the Saudis did.
The Arab Peace Initiative went down in history as a Saudi idea, adopted and supported by the majority of Arab States back in 2002, after the Beirut Arab League Summit. As more Arab States rallied behind the initiative, it became known as the “Arab Peace Initiative”. However the peace plan, still rejected by Israel, will always be remembered as a Saudi initiative, first proposed by former Crown Prince – and later King – the late Fahad Bin Abdelaziz (1921-2005). It, basically, offers Israel full recognition and normalisation by all Arab states, in exchange for its full withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands and the creation of a Palestinian State.
For the Saudis to publically sign the Abraham Accords, at this stage, is a humiliating and unacceptable retreat in the eyes of the Arab and Muslim world masses, whose leadership the Kingdom claims. After all, Saudi Arabia, for the majority of Muslims around the world, is more than just another country; it is the Custodian of the Holy Places—a title which Saudi Kings have been using for decades.
The idea of normalising with Israel is a hot potato in Saudi Arabia, after decades of providing the religious background that made any attempt of normalisation a hard sell, not only to the Saudi public opinion but beyond the Kingdom itself. Saudi scholars and religious preachers, supported by the official Saudi institutions have, for decades, portrayed any rapprochement with Israel as a sin equivalent to that of apostasy. To change a decades’ long policy towards Israel is almost impossible. It requires some background preparations.
This, partly, explains the drive by Crown Prince and de-facto ruler, Mohammed Bin Salman, to open up the Saudi society in a way that would, he hopes, sideline the sheiks and scholars who spent decades preaching against Israel, both politically and religiously.
Also the Kingdom needs some sort of concession/compensatory price, in return for changing its Israeli policy and Riyadh expects such an offer to come, not from the Israelis, but from the Americans who would like to see Riyadh joining the band of other Arab normalisers, sooner than later. The United States still, depending on who is in the White House, recognises the two state solution as the best possible settlement in Palestine—a Saudi policy, so far.
The Saudis might be reassured by Israeli’s position on Iran and the wider regional security. And Riyadh is sure that any secret deals made, in this regard, do include Saudi Arabia without the need, not yet, to publicly normalise ties with oppressive Israel. Saudi Arabia, given its status and role in the area and the wider Islamic world, is not encouraged by what the normalisers have been able to achieve for the Palestinians, so far.
The Arab Ministers, meeting in Negev, failed to discuss any “sensitive” issue with their hosts. They did not even, politely, whisper to their Israeli counterpart that Palestinians jailed without trial must be released, let alone that the occupation of Palestinian land must end. They did not even raise the other “sensitive issue” of human rights. Why would they, since their own governments trample such rights every day, and there is no difference between them and Israel.
The normalisers have absolutely no leverage, as a result of their Israeli policies, to show to others to encourage them, particularly the Saudis, to join them. Embarrassingly zero leverage! Any one of the four Arab Ministers, who took part in the Negev summit, cannot help release a single Palestinian illegally languishing in Israeli jail, cannot prevent the demolition of a single Palestinian home, cannot even protest the next coming raid on any Palestinian village, let alone pleading, with their Israeli friends, the humanitarian situation in besieged Gaza.
Even as group they lack the united position that would put pressure on Israel to, not end its occupation, but soften its barbarism, to say the least. At the same time, all of them have turned their back to all commitments made, over the decades, to their Palestinian brothers. Humiliating, indeed!
As a matter of principle, having any kind of links with Israel, with its appalling human rights record, continued occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands should come at a price for Israel. Not just for the sake of Palestinians but for the sake of regional security, because nuclear-armed and ever-expanding Israel is a security threat to the entire Middle East.
While the Kingdom, undoubtedly, encouraging its smaller “sister” countries to further strengthen ties with Israel, it has not yet seen any need to join them. Israel and Saudi Arabia share the view that Iran is their common enemy and they still can work together and coordinate their responses to Tehran, without publicly embracing each other.
In this regard, the Negev Summit that brought together Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Egypt, was a political show and photo opportunity aimed at Iran, more than about peace in Palestine. If there is any substance behind the show, then the Saudis are already part of it and whatever that might be, apparently, still not enough for them to join the public display of “love” for oppressive Israel.
In the regional context, Riyadh could continue to be the single most important signatory of the Abraham Accords, however, virtually, without losing any normalisation benefits, even if they did not take to the public stage to collect them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.