Three’s a Crowd: Saudi Arabia, the US, and Israeli Normalisation

Not in any hurry: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives US President Joe Biden in July 2022. Image: UPI / Alamy

Jonathan Eyal interviews Senior Associate Fellow, H A Hellyer (HH), about the potential of Saudi-Israeli normalisation.

There have been various reports over recent weeks indicating that Saudi Arabia and Israel might be close to normalisation, with the Biden administration actively pushing for a deal by the end of the year. The Wall Street Journal even claimed that the Saudis had agreed with the Biden administration on a normalisation path, while Israeli normalisation with other Arab states has met with dramatic consequences, such as in Libya. Jonathan Eyal (JE) asked our Senior Associate Fellow, H A Hellyer (HH), about the significance of these events.

JE: Are the two countries indeed close to normalisation? If so, why would it matter? If not, why not?

HH: Saudi-Israeli normalisation is not a Saudi-Israeli story – it is a Saudi-Israeli-US story. Each of the three would be deeply involved in any such endeavour, and without the active participation of all three, the entirety of the undertaking fails. So, it is important to see how it squares up in each.

JE: Let’s start with Saudi Arabia, in that case. There were suggestions that previously, Riyadh was looking to build a broader ‘anti-Iran’ front, and that this was energising the possibility of Saudi-Israeli normalisation?

HH: Any such suggestion no longer holds water, following the de-escalation between Riyadh and Tehran that resulted in the restoration of diplomatic ties in March of this year. Indeed, across a number of files, the mood in Riyadh appears to be one of de-escalation.

But this desire for de-escalation does not extend to an automatic desire to widen engagement with the Israelis. The current Israeli government is one that is deeply controversial within the wider Israeli establishment itself, let alone across the region, for its empowering of the Israeli far right.

The Saudis are probably looking at the United Arab Emirates, which normalised with Israel in the Abraham Accords, and seeing prominent Emirati figures express exasperation at how the Israeli political scene currently looks – one announced publicly during an Israeli conference that further Arab-Israeli normalisation was unlikely, and that the Netanyahu government ‘embarrassed’ the UAE. Indeed, last week, Israel’s opposition leader, Yair Lapid, met with the Emirati foreign minister, with Lapid announcing this publicly on his social media feeds – a clear message for Israelis.

JE: So, the Saudis would need a pretty big reason, then, to normalise with the Israelis right now?

HH: I think a rather massive one. From the Saudi regime’s perspective, which is cognisant of its own reputation across the Muslim world, as well as among its own domestic constituents, it would be rather awkward to normalise with this particular Israeli government.

Riyadh’s reservations would have been confirmed by the response to the recent suggestion that Libya and Israel were drawing closer to normalisation; the domestic response in Libya to the very notion was robust and uncompromising, leading Libyan officials to publicly denounce the contacts that had clearly been underway.

It’s thus not surprising that Riyadh is signalling a lot of disquiet with the current media discourse around normalisation between it and a Netanyahu-led Israel. Perhaps in response, Saudi Arabia decided to commit to a rather symbolic move: the accreditation of a Saudi diplomat to the Palestinian Authority, and a consul-general for Jerusalem (although non-resident).

The Israeli response was to insist there would be no opening of a consulate in Jerusalem– even though the Saudis had never suggested they would open one in the first place. However, a message was delivered and received, in all directions: that Riyadh is not keen on the present Israeli government.

The Saudis may well assess that they stand a chance of a much better deal with the next US administration, and without the Netanyahu obstacle

That the Israelis continue to openly reject any idea of concessions on the Palestinian file, such as insisting that there would be no settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank irrespective of any deal with Saudi Arabia, will have only served to buttress Riyadh’s position. Indeed, Palestinian officials themselves identify in Riyadh a willingness to listen to their concerns, and have already given Riyadh a list of items they want to see reflected in any Israeli-Saudi peace deal. These items are fairly minimalist compared to public rhetoric and discussions, which means the Palestinians are probably trying to strategise about what they can genuinely get at this stage – but it’s rather unlikely that the current Israeli government would make any gesture of this kind.

JE: One begins to suspect Riyadh is thinking less about the Israeli government, and more about Washington?

HH: Well, certainly, Saudi moves vis-à-vis Israel have perhaps as much to do with the US as they do with the Israelis. There might well be dividends for the Saudis, particularly in terms of tech, from a normalisation deal with the Israelis. But the real ‘asks’ are going to be vis-à-vis the US, and there are massive challenges here.

In particular, Riyadh is looking for a US commitment to a security umbrella architecture, something as close to Article 5 of the NATO charter as it can get – and that is not terribly likely at present. There is also a desire to get support for a civilian nuclear programme.

There is tremendous opposition to a deal especially among Democrats, so it would be difficult to get any such agreement past the Senate; and more widely in the Beltway, there is antipathy vis-à-vis Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) himself. As the Democratic Party inches more and more towards the progressive left, that antipathy is only empowered further; it may not be a complete dealbreaker, but it does raise the price, so to speak, for the hassle in Washington. Considering both the Democrats and the Republicans will be focusing on the next electoral cycle pretty soon, all that needs to happen is for people to kick up a fuss about a prospective deal for a few weeks, or even a couple of months, and the whole discussion will get thrown into the long grass as people gear up for the election instead. The Saudis know all of this – and they’re not going to put in a massive amount of investment until the situation changes. This is especially true after the withdrawal from Afghanistan – which Riyadh, and much of the wider Middle East, would have seen as evidence of a desire in Washington to wind down the US footprint abroad, and to not commit to protecting existing security architecture.

And as previously noted, there is still the ‘Palestine Question’ to consider. Riyadh has made it clear that there has to be movement on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories in order for movement to take place, and the Biden administration seems to be rationalising that such a movement would make it easier to get US Democrat support for the deal. And that kind of support is vital.

So, you have senior Biden administration officials shuttling to the Arab world to engage directly with Saudi and Palestinian officials, precisely to discuss ‘realistic understandings’ with the Palestinians on this point. But even if Washington gets expectations down to a bare minimum, it still runs into the obstacle that is Netanyahu, who recognises that taking steps towards the Palestinians ‘would likely anger the extreme-right parties that are part of [Netanyahu] coalition and risk bringing down his government’.

So, frankly, from the Saudi perspective, it probably means this is the worst possible time to invest in a deal. If they wait a while, they may have less to worry about in terms of the Biden administration and obstacles among Democrats, and in terms of an Israeli government led by Netanyahu, with so much far-right representation therein. The Saudis may well assess that they stand a chance of a much better deal with the next US administration, and without the Netanyahu obstacle.

JE: So, for Riyadh, the factors are pretty clear. When it comes to the Israelis, would normalisation be a proverbial ‘win’?

HH: When it comes to the Israelis, any normalisation with any Arab state is a win. If it were to be achieved with Saudi Arabia, this would be a massive win, as far as the Israelis are concerned – the Israeli prime minister sent no less than his close advisor and minister for strategic affairs to Washington mainly for the purpose of working on such a deal.

There might be a great deal of activity and shuttle diplomacy underway – but sometimes, even if there is a 'will', there isn’t always a 'way'

Although the calculus seems to be a bit oddly placed, the assumption appears to be that because Mecca and Medina are in Saudi Arabia, normalisation with Riyadh would suddenly fling open the doors to the entire Muslim world. But Riyadh is not the Vatican, and this is not the 12th century when the Catholic papacy was at its strongest point of power. Riyadh’s foreign policy changes in the past have not made a massive difference to most Muslim states, beyond the GCC; one can see, for example, how Saudi allies in different parts of Asia still developed and maintained links with Tehran at the height of Saudi-Iranian tensions.

JE: So, what would normalisation achieve, in that case?

HH: What is true is that those states which want to normalise would have more to work with in terms of arguing the case domestically for normalisation, especially if they can find dividends, at least with their own stakeholders and constituents. But the Palestinian issue is still a pretty live one – even if symbolically – in a lot of the Muslim world, and if it is not addressed in some way, most states that don’t already want relations to be developed are unlikely to change their minds. It would represent a cost in terms of their own domestic politics, and would not provide sufficient payoffs. Indeed, the Biden administration has already told the Israelis that any successful deal with Riyadh would have to include some kind of concessions with regards to the Palestinians. So, if the Israelis are imagining a massive change in their political positioning in the Muslim world, they probably ought to consider the main reasons why normalisation has escaped them for so long.

JE: That all accounts for the Saudis and the Israelis. But as we’ve already seen, this is a tripartite issue. What is the situation in Washington?

HH: Well, the Israelis aren’t exactly doing wonders with the Biden administration at the moment more generally, including on the normalisation file. Washington was not impressed by Israel’s publicising of the Libyan-Israeli track, and made it clear as such, and the Biden administration was direct about the need for Netanyahu’s government to make some kind of concessions vis-à-vis the Palestinians in order to get a deal with Saudi Arabia, which has already been rejected by Israel’s far-right finance minister; not to mention that Netanyahu is asking for more security arrangements between the US and Israel.

Moreover, there is a lot of concern in Washington about the nature of Israeli democracy itself (and the much more widespread accusation that Israel is guilty of apartheid against the Palestinians); writ large, the Israelis aren’t making a deal any easier to come by.

Nevertheless, in the Beltway, with all its policy establishments – governmental and otherwise – Israeli normalisation is a bipartisan issue, there is massive support for it as a principle across the aisle. Indeed, the Abraham Accords were met with huge exuberance and enthusiasm, which perhaps explains why there has been a lot of media reportage that seems incredibly keen to put the best possible face on the likelihood of Saudi-Israeli normalisation.

But wishful thinking is not sufficient. As mentioned above, security guarantees for other countries are not the easiest things to get through the Senate, and Saudi Arabia seems to have made it clear that this is what would get a deal across the finish line. And the media coverage that seemed to indicate there was an imminent deal in the offing provoked, rather uncharacteristically for Washington, a pretty blunt and public put-down by the administration, saying that no framework had been agreed upon.

Yes, the administration wants it – that is clear, and it has expended a lot of energy and visits from US officials to investigate the potential for a deal, as well as engaging with Israeli officials on the subject. It was also reported that Biden may engage in bilateral personal meetings with MBS this month at the G20, and with Netanyahu in the US, to discuss possibilities.

But the administration also knows that in a few months, its bandwidth will be focused on the election cycle and domestic considerations, and it is equally aware that Saudi Arabia is not about to give Biden a massive foreign policy ‘win’ without something equally massive in return. There might be a great deal of activity and shuttle diplomacy underway – but sometimes, even if there is a ‘will’, there isn’t always a ‘way’.

It might well be that the Saudis and Israelis normalise in our lifetimes – but probably not in 2023.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr H A Hellyer

Senior Associate Fellow

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