Saudi-Israel Normalization Talks Surge Forward: What It Means for the Middle East

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hints at forthcoming normalization with Israel, generating speculation about the geopolitical consequences
September 21, 2023
Vladimir Gnedin/Getty Images

Normalization talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia under US auspices seem to be gaining steam after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Fox News on Wednesday that normalization between his country and Israel is on the horizon.

The remarks by the de facto ruler of the oil-rich kingdom, also known as MBS, to journalist Bret Baier on the Fox program Special Report, have spread swiftly throughout the region and the world, sparking hopes of a historic breakthrough deal.

“Every day we get closer,” Crown Prince Mohammed told Baier.

The potential normalization deal could have a seismic effect, unlike anything the region has seen in decades, bigger than the signing of the Camp David peace deal between Israel and Egypt more than four decades ago.

The 38-year-old monarch told Fox that the Palestinian issue was “very important” to Riyadh in coming to an agreement with Israel, adding that “we need to solve that part.”

“We’ve got to see where we go. We hope that will reach a place that will ease the life of the Palestinians and get Israel as a player in the Middle East,” the crown prince continued, speaking in English. However, he wasn’t clear on what these steps could be for the Palestinians.

“That could many things: allowing Muslim citizens of Israel to fly directly to Saudi Arabia, opening the kingdom airspace to Israeli airlines, or more work permits for Palestinians,” said Professor Joshua Teitelbaum, senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University.

He told The Media Line that keeping the definition wide open with few details could make it difficult for a far-right Israeli government to say no to giving concessions to the Palestinians.

Crown Prince Mohammed has denied reports that negotiations with Israel over a possible normalization deal have been suspended. Teitelbaum says MBS wants to keep everyone “interested.”

“I think he’s sincere about normalization, but we need to be careful about what kind of normalization he means,” he said. “If we think normalization with the UAE, I think it’s quite a long way off.”

Teitelbaum explains that these interviews can be a tool for leaders to formulate opinions or feel the pulse of the public.

“We have to be careful about how to respond to American and Israeli attempts to shape the narrative to create a certain buzz. That’s what they do when they give interviews and speak to journalists,” he said.

Teitelbaum says he understands the rationale of MBS’s approach.

“This prince is going to be in power for a long time, he has some new ideas, he doesn’t have any particular animosity to Israel,” he said.

Soft normalization is already underway, says Teitelbaum. Saudi Arabia has already allowed Israeli airlines to fly over its airspace in recent years, and Israeli officials reported that the kingdom received help from Israeli cybersecurity firms to fend off certain cyberattacks.

Hours before the interview was aired, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally met with US President Joe Biden after waiting nine months, the longest wait of any Israeli leader since 1964. The meeting took place at a New York hotel on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, not at the White House as Netanyahu would have hoped.

The talks focused on a potential agreement with Saudi Arabia and, according to the White House readout of the meeting, President Biden “emphasized the need to take immediate measures to improve the security and economic situation, maintain the viability of a two-state solution, and promote a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

President Biden’s comments reaffirm Washington’s role in the negotiations and underline that they too are looking to extract concessions for all sides.

The fact that the meeting was held in New York and not at the White House is widely viewed as a snub of the Israeli prime minister by President Biden. The White House has expressed its frustration with Netanyahu’s planned judicial overhaul that divides the country, and the president has called Israel’s far-right government the most extreme in its history.

A senior White House official called the meeting “constructive” and “candid.”

President Biden has been pushing for a deal between Washington’s top two regional powerhouses, both important Middle East allies to the US.

Netanyahu, who has had strained relations with President Biden, said he believed a deal was “within our reach” and credited the president.

“I think that under your leadership, Mr. President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” the Israeli prime minister said.

Adel Shadeed, a Palestinian political analyst based in the West Bank, told The Media Line that the crown prince’s remarks “dealt a strong blow to the Palestinians and also to Saudi Arabia’s image and credibility and will take the region into more division and chaos.”

“What he said is considered a very dangerous and important development for the region and indicates that Saudi Arabia and the region after this statement will not be the same as it was before it,” Shadeed said.

“it is considered a serious, major, and fundamental decline in the Saudi position on the Palestinian issue,” he continued. “It includes a major reversal in Arab positions and constitutes the beginning of the demolition of what remains of joint Arab action, the demolition of what remains of the Arab League, and the demolition of the Arab Peace Initiative, which is originally a Saudi initiative, which paved the way for the Arabs to deal with Israel.”

Shadeed describes the shift in Saudi position as a major triumph for Israel’s prime minister.

“It’s a victory and a major breakthrough for Israel and its right-wing government, and a major achievement that will be recorded for Benjamin Netanyahu and his partners from the extreme right,” he said.

He argues that the Saudi change in its policy will have considerable consequences for the Palestinians.

“What happened will weaken the official Palestinian position, the position of the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah movement, and may lead to divisions within the PA and the Fatah movement,” Shadeed emphasized.

He added that it “will push some Palestinian figures within the PA to rush more towards Israel without protecting the national rights. Another segment will put pressure on the president and the leadership to formulate a new position on Saudi Arabia.”

Shadeed says that this “will lead to Iran and its allies and partners exploiting the region and the Palestinian arena.”

“The Saudi position will not lead to peace and will lead to frustration for the Palestinians,” Shadeed said.

President Biden’s relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed has been less than cordial. The president vowed during his 2020 presidential campaign to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” over its human rights record, after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the premises of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

For Saudi Arabia, the guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites, such a deal will have a significant impact on the region and beyond. President Biden likely hopes to tout it as a major achievement during his re-election campaign.

Unlike the 2021 Abraham Accords, the Palestinian Authority is trying to play a role in the talks and has been engaging with Saudi officials making their demands known.

These demands include the reopening of the US Consulate in East Jerusalem and the transfer of some West Bank land to Palestinian control.

Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar for the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line that the crown prince is “sincere” in his public statements about the “importance of the Palestinian issue, without a doubt.”

“No one knows what he really thinks in private, but he is an Arab and a Saudi, and most Arabs and Saudis are fundamentally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, even if some of them are fed up with the Palestinian national leaders and the split between the PLO and Hamas,” Ibish said.

However, Ibish insists that “Saudis need significant Israeli concessions on the occupation and towards the Palestinians. Without that, it probably doesn’t make sense for Saudi Arabia to move forward.”

Ibish says if President Biden is successful in his mission, it will transform the Middle East.

“This would be a huge development in the strategic equation and landscape in the Middle East. It would greatly strengthen the position of both Israel and Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis mutual threats like Iran by potentially openly combining their policies aimed at containment and deterrence of Tehran,” Ibish said, adding that “it would create a giant relay of US-friendly countries around the strategically crucial Arabian Peninsula.”

Making concessions to the Palestinians may not be an easy task for Netanyahu. He needs to convince his hard-right coalition first, and if that doesn’t work, Ibish says the veteran premiere may have to reach out to moderate opposition parties.

“That’s very hard to imagine under current circumstances but given the potential huge benefits to Israel of such a deal—which would open the doorway to normalization with the vast majority of Arab and Muslim countries—it cannot be completely ruled out by any means,” Ibish said.

Saudi Arabia has also been seeking security guarantees, reportedly including a treaty with the United States, in return for normalizing with Israel, the immediate region’s only nuclear weapons state, even if an undeclared one.

Teitelbaum says since its inception, the Saudi royal family feared for its security.

“They don’t think the United States gives them guarantees,” he said. “They really want that. This whole thing with Israel is more about US security guarantees for Saudi Arabia than about peace with Israel.”

Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional foe, accuses the kingdom of betraying the Palestinians through the US-led effort.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, addressing reporters on Wednesday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, said that any deal that aims “to bring security for the Zionist regime (Israel) will certainly not do so.”

“We believe that a relationship between regional countries and the Zionist regime would be a stab in the back of the Palestinian people and of the resistance of the Palestinians,” Raisi said.

The crown prince made his intention clear on Iran developing a nuclear weapon, saying, “If they get one, we have to get one.”

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