All it took was one article to suggest that an Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement has come close to fruition. Since the New York Times published Thursday columnist Thomas Friedman’s article on the matter, some observers have anticipated a redefinition of the regional strategic landscape, rivaling that of the Camp David Accords and the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
According to the article, titled: "Joe Biden is weighing a big Middle East deal," the US president told Friedman he was considering a mutual security pact between the US and Saudi Arabia, which would involve the normalization of ties between Riyadh and Israel, “provided that Israel makes concessions to the Palestinians that would preserve the possibility of a two-state solution.”
While the Biden administration has been trying to strike a historic deal between the two countries before the end of the year, the contents of Friedman’s article confirmed the progress of the Washington-led talks on the file.
The revelations came after Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, and White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, Brett McGurk, traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior Saudi officials.
“The president still has not made up his mind whether to proceed, but he gave a green light for his team to probe with Crown Prince (…) to see if some kind of deal is possible and at what price,” Friedman writes.
This gives credit to the hypothesis of expected normalization in the coming months. Faical J. Abbas, editor-in-chief of the Riyadh-based Arab News, known to be close to the Saudi authorities, also made remarks that align with this.
“Of course, there has been no official confirmation from the Kingdom. However, one has only to speculate, contextualize and take recent developments into consideration to reach the conclusion that it is highly likely that such a deal might be possible,” Abbas wrote on Saturday.
Until a few years ago, the idea that such an agreement would be signed before the death of King Salman, who has long supported the Palestinian cause, seemed impossible.
But the ongoing developments confirm once again MBS’ position as the Kingdom’s sole ruler. It seems that MBS— whom Biden helped ostracize in the international community in contrast to his predecessor Donald Trump — would prefer not to offer this gift of reconciliation to Biden. However, it is likely that he will grant it if the current administration in Washington is re-elected for a new term.
Two US officials quoted by Axios also stated Monday that the director of the Mossad secretly traveled to Washington two weeks ago to speak with senior White House and CIA officials. This could very well be a sign of accelerated momentum.
According to the officials , the Biden administration’s efforts to reach such a deal and the Israeli government’s concerns about possible bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia on a civilian nuclear program (including uranium enrichment) and US sophisticated arms sales to Riyadh, were at the heart of the meeting.
Despite the apparent progress, talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel continue to be punctuated by many complications.
“Many obstacles stand in the way of a mutual security pact, assistance to the civilian nuclear program and other arms deals, if that is the Saudi demand, in addition to a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital,” said Bader al-Saif, a professor at the University of Kuwait.
In recent days, the cautious optimism surrounding the conclusion of a normalization agreement has come up against the reality of the context in Israel. This makes Saudi Arabia’s requirements seem unrealistic.
“Saudi Arabia will not abandon its 2002 Arab peace initiative, which focuses on Palestine, even if it includes specific Saudi demands,” added Saif in reference to the plan set by Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud when he was crown prince, which was supported by the Arab League, called for improved relations with Israel in exchange for its total withdrawal from the occupied territories.
On the Israeli side however, the prospect of accepting any Palestinian concession is dismissed by the far-right and ultra-orthodox Jewish members of the ruling coalition. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security advisor stressed on Monday that Israel’s agreement was not necessary for Riyadh to implement a civilian nuclear program, he said the road to normalization was “still long.”
The same day, Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir told the army’s radio: “If this agreement includes concessions to the [Palestinian] Authority, surrendering territories, arming the PA or granting powers to terrorists, then I will certainly oppose it.”
This opposition places Netanyahu, who is anxious to stay in power amidst controversy over proposed judicial reform, in a dilemma.
For Netanyahu, normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia, guardian of the two holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina, would be a major diplomatic victory.
“This could make it easier for other Arab and Muslim countries to normalize relations with Israel,” said Bilal Y. Saab, Director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute (MEI).
“On the other hand, normalization with Israel will significantly complicate the Kingdom’s relations with Iran,” Saab said. Ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran were somewhat repaired after Riyadh and Tehran signed in March a détente agreement restoring their diplomatic relations, which reportedly urged the Biden administration to intensify its efforts on the Israeli-Saudi file.
But in both Israel and Washington, challenges persist. Democrats and Republicans alike are reluctant to offer security guarantees to Riyadh, particularly since the 2018 assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s consulate in Istanbul.
Saudi Arabia’s perception asa credible ally has been dwindling. The Kingdom has also recently reduced its oil production on several occasions, despite US warnings, and has grown close to Beijing, which brokered the détente agreement between Riyadh and Tehran.
“Washington wants that Saudi Arabia drastically limit its defense cooperation with China and to become more involved in the Palestinian issue,” Saab said.
“Nothing can be ruled out, but it’s hard to believe that Washington will give Riyadh an official deterrent before Taipei or Kiev,” he added.
Whatever the feasibility of these conditions, it is clear that the Kingdom has managed, through the exploratory talks underway, to increase its room for maneuver vis-à-vis the US.
“Whether the agreement succeeds or not, in any form whatsoever, the Saudis managed to have the US administration which, after having described the Kingdom as a pariah state, relentlessly courting it again,” said Saif.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.