Creating new perspectives since 2009

Why are Israel and Saudi Arabia heading for normalisation, and what might stop it?

August 3, 2023 at 11:16 am

Flags of Israel and Saudi Arabia

Despite US efforts to get Saudi Arabia and Israel to normalise their relations, the process keeps faltering. Israeli officials speak of a long and important list of demands made by the Kingdom to the Americans. Although a normalisation agreement with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Muslim world will give greater legitimacy to relations with Israel, such an agreement requires the apartheid state to do certain things, according to Israeli political and diplomatic officials.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has the ambitious goal to broker such normalisation before the next presidential election campaign. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have set the same goal. He has a clear interest in strengthening relations with Saudi Arabia as it is the major Arab country with special status as the guardian of the Islamic holy places of Makkah and Madinah.

Israel believes that an agreement with the Saudis will give other countries in the Muslim world, such as Indonesia for example, more legitimacy — albeit not absolute — to do likewise. This raises questions about what Saudi Arabia will gain from normalisation, specifically from the US, since relations between the Kingdom and Israel will be different from those with other countries; the process will be slower and with different standards than those seen with the UAE and Bahrain, considering the specific sensitivities of its status in Muslim eyes.

The Saudis are holding talks with the Americans about their demands in return for normalisation. These include US security guarantees; a formal defence agreement between the two countries; a shopping list of advanced US weapons, including the F-35 fighter jet; and US assistance in establishing a civilian nuclear infrastructure that includes the ability to enrich uranium. Tel Aviv does not object to a defence agreement between Washington and Riyadh, claiming that it has an interest in the Kingdom’s security and wants to see greater US commitment to building its alliance in the region.

However, the Israelis fear that supplying advanced US weapons to Saudi Arabia will weaken their regional military hegemony. A more sensitive issue is Saudi Arabia’s entry into the nuclear club, which would have serious repercussions on regional nuclear proliferation, even if it is for civilian use and under US supervision; other countries may demand the same thing, such as Egypt and Turkey, for example.

READ: Saudi Arabia, Israel firms sign joint energy venture to advance Kingdom’s solar energy transition

In terms of Saudi Arabia’s political demands in return for normalisation, they are related to seeing some progress in the Palestinian issue, because it is still central to the Saudis and would give them the cloak of Arab and Islamic legitimacy for its relations with the occupation state. Contrary to what Israel hopes, Riyadh is going to demand practical steps in favour of the Palestinians, but there will be strong opposition from the far-right government in Tel Aviv, especially on matters such as a freeze on illegal settlements and transferring land to Palestinian Authority control.

The latest Netanyahu government’s policies towards the Palestinians make it difficult to create favourable conditions for progress in Israeli-Saudi relations. The policies have to change, and excluding neo-fascist ministers would be a good starting point.

While normalisation talks continue, some Israelis are discussing what they believe are external challenges that could boost the process. These include Iran’s nuclear programme and its accumulation of enriched uranium using advanced centrifuges, plus its development of missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Another challenge is China’s growing position in the region and America’s apparent weakness. There’s also the increasing boldness of Lebanon’s Hezbollah against Israel to consider. Palestinian developments are also in the equation, not least the ongoing armed resistance in the occupied West Bank with involvement from Hamas, which it intends to intensify.

Behind all of this is the tension between Israel and the Biden administration. Israel is worried about losing US support, which condones the occupation state’s policies and provides diplomatic protection at the UN, for example. This is happening even as Israel’s relations with pragmatic Arab countries have cooled, despite their normalisation agreements.

While Israelis claim that normalisation with Saudi Arabia is of common interest to them both, Washington’s positions are not so clear. The US is interested in a breakthrough in Israeli-Saudi relations, but it is reluctant to pay the price that the Kingdom demands. While it may support normalisation, it could focus on extracting benefits for the Palestinians to entice Riyadh, rather than paying with advanced weaponry. If the Biden administration decides to help, or at least not intervene, there is a reasonable opportunity to enhance normalisation, despite the recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

READ: Israel ‘very optimistic’ about normalisation deal with Saudi Arabia

Israelis believe that even if full public normalisation is not possible, relations with Saudi Arabia are warm enough to ensure the security of the Red Sea, given the transfer of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to the Kingdom, and to deal with what Israel describes as threats from Islamic elements. This not-quite-normalised relationship is mostly carried out through secret channels. If it continues, or even develops but still falls short of full normalisation, Israel’s position in the region will be boosted without the obligation for the Kingdom, Israel or the United States to pay any problematic price.

Israel’s calculations on this matter coincide with indications that Saudi Arabia is ready to turn words into action. Riyadh already allows Israeli flights to use Saudi air space, and has invited Jewish American community leaders to visit. The Kingdom also intends to allow Israeli representatives to participate in the UNESCO conference in Riyadh, and plans to develop a land bridge from the UAE through Saudi Arabia so that it can benefit directly from Israeli expertise in fresh water provision, green energy, desertification, cyber defence and medicine.

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