Is a Saudi-US pact still imminent?

The biggest obstacle to the normalisation with Israel continues to be its opposition to a two-state solution

Saudi Arabia’s custodianship of the Two Holy Mosques makes reaching a settlement with Israel extremely challenging. As such, it has prioritised securing Palestinian rights before signing any peace accord with Israel.
Nash Weerasekera
Saudi Arabia’s custodianship of the Two Holy Mosques makes reaching a settlement with Israel extremely challenging. As such, it has prioritised securing Palestinian rights before signing any peace accord with Israel.

Is a Saudi-US pact still imminent?

The Hamas attack of 7 October 2023 was a turning point in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite the unsympathetic attitude held by several Arab governments toward Hamas, the massive number of Palestinian deaths and casualties reflects the vindictive strategy of Israel, which makes it hard for Arab governments to pursue any potential agreement with the Jewish state.

Since the war started in Gaza, several media outlets and research centres have concluded that Hamas timed its attack to hinder any potential Arab efforts for the normalisation of relations with Israel.

Before 7 October, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince stated that his country was steadily moving toward that. Israelis were eager for an agreement with Riyadh, viewing it as an effective strategy to isolate Hamas from the Arab world.

If it ever happens, normalisation with Saudi Arabia would be a major victory for Israel, akin to the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978 with Egypt.

The recognition of Israel as a sovereign state is a taboo among most Muslim and Arab countries. However, this doesn’t mean that all Muslim countries hold this attitude. In March 1949, for example, Turkey recognised the State of Israel and sent its diplomatic mission to Tel Aviv in January 1950. On its part, Iran recognised the State of Israel on 14 March 1950. Turkey and Iran were the strongest Muslim-majority countries.

However, recognition from a major Arab country was more valuable for the Zionist state. That was precisely what occurred on 26 March 1979 when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a treaty accompanied by US President Jimmy Carter.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (L), Israeli Premier Menachem Begin (R) and US President Jimmy Carter (C) shake hands after a press conference in the East Room of the White House on September 17, 1978.

Just like in Judaism and Christianity, occupied Jerusalem is a sacred site for Muslims. However, the plight of Palestinians is an Arab issue more than a Muslim one.

There are several factors behind this assumption. The Arabs used the term Nakba – which means catastrophe or disaster in Arabic – to describe the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. It was a catastrophe in every sense of the word, as the Zionist militias and the new Israeli army violently expelled Arabs (Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians) from their homes and homeland.

Arab response

Immediately, war broke out, as nearby Arab nations tried to help Palestinians retake their lands, but Israel emerged victorious and imposed the reality of its Jewish state in the heart of the Levant.

The following years saw the emergence of a pan-Arab discourse led by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who used the Palestinian issue as a key driver of Arab unity. This further defined the conflict as an Arab versus Israeli conflict rather than a Muslim versus Jewish one.

This explains the harsh Arab backlash toward Egypt for its peace treaty with Israel, compared to those of Turkey and Iran.

Just like in Judaism and Christianity, occupied Jerusalem is a sacred site for Muslims. However, the plight of Palestinians is an Arab issue more than a Muslim one.

However, the Islamic revival in 1979 and the rise of the Iranian Islamic revolution meant Palestine and the al-Aqsa mosque became key causes to champion. This could explain why Islamist leadership, which emphasises the Islamic identity of Palestine, has gained more popularity with Palestinians than secular leadership.

Egypt's treaty with Israel had many radical consequences. It was suspended from the Arab League for ten years, from 1979 to 1989. In addition, Sadat was assassinated in 1981.

After this, moves to retract recognition of Israel did not gain traction because some Arab politicians were working toward a comprehensive plan for the future of the region.

A considerable change occurred when Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords with Israelis on 13 September 1993. This was followed by the Israel–Jordan peace treaty on 26 October 1994. However, tensions worsened following the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by the right-wing Jewish extremist Yigal Amir in November 1995.

Pioneer for peace

Saudi Arabia is the pioneer of comprehensive Arab plans for peace with Israel. On 7 August 1981, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz announced a plan for peace in the Middle East.

The plan included eight proposals labelled "principles for peace." Those proposals enshrined in UN Resolution 242 include the two-state solution (with East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state) and the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland with compensation for those who choose not to.

Israel firmly rejected the plan, arguing that it would eventually lead to the demise of the Jewish state.

Another plan was put forth by Saudi Arabia and was initiated by Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during the Arab League summit in Beirut on 28 March 2002. The announcement occurred a month before American journalist Thomas L. Friedman visited Crown Prince Abdullah in Riyadh and proposed a nearly identical plan. The Saudi leader reportedly looked at him in astonishment and said: "Have you broken into my desk?''

Again, Israel rejected the offer outright, as it referenced UN Resolution 194, which calls for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland.

Gradually, the idea of a comprehensive Arab peace plan started to fade, and Israel began to pursue separate bilateral agreements with each Arab country. It believed that an Arab-Israeli pact would weaken it.

This was undeniably a smart manoeuvre, as Israel prefers to deal with its neighbouring countries separately. The bilateral relationship approach is more favourable to Israel, as it is well-armed and has a strong economy generously supported by the United States.

On 15 September 2022, Israel signed the Abraham Accords, a set of bilateral agreements between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain. Sudan joined the accords on 23 October 2022 and Morocco on 10 December 2022. These agreements were signed separately, making them bilateral accords between Israel and each of the involved Arab countries.

(L-R)Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan after signing the Abraham Accords on 15 September 2020.

On its part, Saudi Arabia is not interested in being a part of the Abraham Accords. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is well aware of the significance and weight of his country, which Israel is eager to reach, and that there are more complex and riskier calculations for the Kingdom to normalise relations with Israel than those faced by the UAE and Bahrain.

For this reason, Crown Prince Mohammed has never mentioned the term "Abraham" in his discussions about normalisation with Israel. It is understood that the Saudi leader aims to protect the pivotal position of his country and not compromise its unique status.

Saudi Arabia is not interested in being a part of the Abraham Accords. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is well aware of the significance and weight of his country, which Israel is eager to reach.

Why Saudi Arabia?

As a leading figure in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia has a solemn duty to balance its strategic partnership with the US, on the one hand, with its Arab-Islamic obligations on the other.

Before the declaration of the state of Israel, Western media favourably covered the Saudi government's commitment toward the "Arab right" in Palestine. For example, The Times reported on 8 September 1936, "The King of Saudi Arabia offered to use his good offices acting in concert, if their cooperation could be secured, with other Arab rulers."

Such diplomatic language did not prevent Saudi Arabia from condemning Jewish settlements in Palestine. It even went further to challenge the UN's decision to partition Palestine. 

In 1940, the possibility was raised that Saudi Arabia could impose an oil embargo to support Palestinians against the Anglo-American support for Jewish settlement in Palestine. A report published by The New York Times on 13 July 1948 cited a quote from Saudi King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud: "I have said, brother, that I am ready to sacrifice myself and my sons for Palestine. Again, I say oil is not dearer than my sons. I am ready to cancel the oil concessions if necessary."

The Saudi position on Palestine is part of its permanent strategic regional policy. On 14 February 1945, King Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, met President Franklin D. Roosevelt, known as FDR, aboard the USS Quincy in Great Bitter Lake, Egypt.

FDR had two goals for meeting Ibn Saud: His politically motivated determination to solve the Palestinian-Jewish problem and the economic and strategic imperative of securing a post-war US relationship with Saudi Arabia, including, crucially, access to its oil.

Despite the positive narrative that both Saudis and Americans have about that meeting, the substance of the discussion was dominated by a disagreement over the future land of Palestine. While FDR argued for a Jewish state, King Ibn Saud argued that the Jews should create their state elsewhere.

Discussions between King Ibn Saud and FDR began years earlier, before the 1945 USS Quincy meeting. The US Department of State published multiple letters that King Ibn Saud sent to FDR between 1938-1943 demanding the rights of Palestinians to their land and condemning the expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestine.

These meetings proved to be a turning point for American influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia shifted its core alliance from Great Britain to the United States. King Ibn Saud and FDR solidified their petro-political agenda, which is still in place today.

It is worth noting that, since 2016, the Ibn Saud-Roosevelt agreements have been a subject of review led by the latest administrations of Presidents Trump and Biden. The oil and military agenda has been reviewed on both sides as Washington and Riyadh seek better deals in their national interest.

However, Palestine is another issue that has been reviewed seriously after almost seven decades of Ibn Saud-Roosevelt meetings.

Saudi Arabia's custodianship of the Two Holy Mosques (in Mecca and Medina) makes reaching a settlement with Israel extremely challenging. Therefore, Saudi Arabia has prioritised securing Palestinian rights before signing any peace accord with the Jewish state. 

Nash Weerasekera

Read more: On the normalisation question

Saudi Arabia's custodianship of the Two Holy Mosques makes reaching a settlement with Israel extremely challenging. As such, it has prioritised securing Palestinian rights before signing any peace accord with Israel.

Enter Mohammed bin Salman

On 20 September 2023, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had a set-piece interview with Fox News.

Read more: The seven messages of Mohammed bin Salman

He said the prospect of normalised relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel "gets closer" every day. However, Israel's treatment of Palestinians has always been a "very important" issue to be resolved. The Saudi Crown Prince is fully aware of the value of his country and won't put its diplomatic and spiritual status at risk for nothing in return.

On 25 October 2023, Mohammed bin Salman stressed to President Biden the need to "restore the peace track to ensure that the Palestinian people obtain their legitimate rights and to achieve a fair and comprehensive peace."

Palestinians have the absolute right to pursue their own talks with Israel on their statehood. The president of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, called Mohammed bin Salman when Israel's war on Gaza began in October. He stressed that the worsening situation posed a threat to the lives of civilians and the security and stability of the region.

Therefore, Washington understands any Saudi normalisation deal with Israel must include a "significant Palestinian component" that is acceptable to Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).

The PA has a positive attitude toward peace with Israel if it recognises an independent Palestinian state, in turn. If Mohammed bin Salman succeeds in getting Israel to recognise a Palestinian state based on the Oslo Accords, he will go down in history as having solved a major component of the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, the biggest obstacle is Israel, which continues to oppose a two-state solution.

Israel might make some verbal promises with a convoluted language that masks their true ambitions. However, Saudi Arabia would like to see Palestinians consent to Israeli promises to absolve itself from potential tension between Israelis and Palestinians in the future.

Mohammed bin Salman is more concerned about maximising benefits for Saudi Arabia from a deal with the US — not Israel — which does not have much to offer.

The Saudi Crown Prince wants to impose his conditions on Washington to get more security guarantees, including advanced weapons and military technology. If he reaches those goals, Saudi Arabia will secure military deals that it has never had in its entire history.

Having said that, Saudi engagement in negotiations with Israel does not guarantee a final deal. Still, Mohammed bin Salman has successfully brought the Biden administration in the direction that serves his agenda.

White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk was working as a broker for economic and security agreements that would unfreeze the ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The negotiation's first — and unconditional — step was to reverse Biden's pledge to turn Saudi Arabia into a "pariah" state.

Biden's first — and perhaps last — presidential term is approaching its final months, and US-Saudi relations are at a critical stage. Since Biden became president, no major Saudi royal member has visited the US. The visit of Saudi Defence Minister Khalid bin Salman to Washington on 30 October 2023 represented the highest-ranking Saudi official to visit since Biden took office.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) and Saudi Defence Minister Khalid bin Salman speak with media members in the Treaty Room of the State Department in Washington, DC, on November 1, 2023.

The Democratic administration is running out of time to reach a deal that would outshine the Abraham Accords clinched by Trump's Republican administration. Therefore, Biden has seemingly withdrawn some of the anti-Saudi slogans that he used in his 2020 campaign. If he fails to reach a Saudi-Israeli peace accord, that could affect his presidential bid in 2024, which becomes more unlikely as time passes.

At this point, some observers argue that despite the crippling of the Saudi-Israeli deal, Mohammed bin Salman may have already got what he wants from engaging in the negotiations.

Mohammed bin Salman is more concerned about maximising benefits for Saudi Arabia from a deal with the US — not Israel — which does not have much to offer.

Gaza war complicates Mideast politics

On 7 October 2023, Hamas attacked Israel in retaliation for the siege of Gaza. The first three days of the attack seemed to be in the favour of Hamas and its allies, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, before the Israelis began their relentless aerial bombardment of Gaza, killing and injuring tens of thousands of Palestinians.

An injured man holds another injured child, both survivors of Israeli bombardment, while a nurse bandages his head at a trauma ward at Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 24, 2023.

Since 7 October, several think tanks and media reports have cited the potential agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel as the major reason for Hamas's initiation of the war.

Matthew Levitt wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine accusing Hamas of seeking to prevent normalised relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. According to Levitt, this was the primary factor in Hamas' decision to carry out the attack and escalate the conflict.

Hamas is convinced that such normalisation would undermine the Palestinian issue. Moreover, the expected diplomatic breakthrough could strengthen an effective regional alliance against Iran and its allies, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

The Saudi attitude toward the war is finely balanced. While the Saudis do not like Hamas, they unequivocally condemn the Israeli attack and siege of Gaza.

This message was delivered to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken when he visited Riyadh and was kept waiting several hours for a meeting presumed to happen in the evening, but for which the Crown Prince arrived the next morning.

Saudis perceived this slight as an act of solidarity with their "Palestinian brothers."

As the war continues, Saudis are increasingly opposed to Israel's ground invasion in Gaza, pushing the spectre of any peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel further away. This would be a huge blow to Biden and the Democrats.

What next?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman does not want tension with neighbouring states and has subsequently adopted a zero-conflict policy. To this end, he restored diplomatic relations with Iran and shared his attitude toward a peace agreement with Israel.

However, Israel is not Iran. The relationship with Iran has bilateral issues that could be solved between Riyadh and Tehran. The case of Israel has multiple layers beyond bilateral relations.

The Palestinian issue is critical. Saudi Arabia has to carefully calculate its moves because the US is the primary supplier of weapons and military technologies.

Saudi Arabia might defer normalisation until guarantees for reasonable gains for Palestinians have been secured. As the broker of any such agreement, Washington should address Saudi demands for weapons and technology if the two US allies agree to sit and negotiate a peace deal in the future.

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