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Renewed focus on Saudi-Israeli normalisation

Aug 14, 2023 | AIJAC staff

Reports are suggesting a US-Saudi agreement has been reached on the broad outlines of a package that would see Riyadh normalise its relations with Israel, perhaps early next year - though other reports dispute this. (Image: Shutterstock, OnePixelStudio)
Reports are suggesting a US-Saudi agreement has been reached on the broad outlines of a package that would see Riyadh normalise its relations with Israel, perhaps early next year - though other reports dispute this. (Image: Shutterstock, OnePixelStudio)

Update 08/23 #02

 

Recent weeks have seen much discussion in both Washington and Jerusalem, including at the highest levels, that an Israeli-Saudi normalisation deal may be on its way. This culminated in a Wall Street Journal report last week that claimed that the US Biden Administration had reached an unwritten agreement with Riyadh laying out the broad outline of such a deal, including what the US would provide Saudi Arabia as incentives.

That things have progressed this far has now been denied by the Biden Administration, but here is the original WSJ piece – updated to include those denials – but detailing some of the issues and arrangements Washington and Riyadh are discussing. To be clear, the story suggests a normalisation deal may be possible in several months – perhaps in the lead up to the US election – but not in the short term, as agreement exists only on the broad outline, but not on key details, of a deal. The piece also discusses key Saudi demands – such as concessions to the Palestinians and a complete nuclear fuel cycle – and the concerns and headaches these will create in both Washington and Israel. For the details, CLICK HERE.

Next up is a summary of a webinar with Robert Satloff, the always insightful head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, talking about the prospects, implications and requirements of a Saudi-Israel normalisation deal. He makes a very strong case that such a deal would strongly advance the interests of not only Jerusalem and Riyadh, but the US as well. While he predicts a breakthrough could occur late this year or early next year, he notes that Saudi demands for concessions to the Palestinians could be a stumbling block, given the make-up of the current Israeli Government. For Satloff’s valuable analysis, especially regarding the strategic benefits of normalisation, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Mark Regev, the Australian-born former Israeli Ambassador to the UK and spokesperson for Israeli PM Netanyahu – who was recently visiting Australia – gives his take on the potential for an Israel-Saudi normalisation deal. He looks at the history of warming ties between Israeli and Saudi Arabia over recent years, and also reviews why leaders in Washington, Riyadh and Jerusalem would benefit from a normalisation deal – which he terms a potential “momentous achievement.” Regev also looks at the challenges in Israeli domestic politics to getting a deal over the line, saying he expects Netanyahu to “rise to the occasion”, but that some of his coalition partners may be more problematic. For Regev’s complete argument, CLICK HERE. Offering a more sceptical view of Netayahu’s ability to get an agreement despite likely coalition opposition to some necessary concessions is Israeli pundit Shmuel Rosner.

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Saudis Agree With U.S. on Path to Normalize Kingdom’s Ties With Israel

Officials are negotiating details of agreement they hope to cement within nine-to-12 months, though obstacles remain

By Dion Nissenbaum

 

WASHINGTON—The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have agreed on the broad contours of a deal for Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel in exchange for concessions to the Palestinians, U.S. security guarantees and civilian nuclear help, according to U.S. officials.

U.S. officials expressed cautious optimism that, in the next nine to 12 months, they can hammer out the finer details of what would be the most momentous Middle East peace deal in a generation. But they warned that they face long odds.

The stepped-up efforts come after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met in Jeddah two weeks ago with Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, in a bid to accelerate talks. Negotiators now have moved to discussing specifics, including addressing Saudi requests that the U.S. help them develop a civilian nuclear program and offer iron clad security guarantees.

The Saudis are also seeking significant concessions from Israel that would help promote the creation of a Palestinian state. In return, the U.S. is pressing Saudi Arabia to impose limits on its growing relationship with China.

“There’s a work plan to explore the elements of what this would be and test the boundaries of what’s possible,” said one senior U.S. official.

The efforts are the outgrowth of a recognition in Washington, Riyadh and Jerusalem that now is the time to try to broker a deal, according to U.S. officials. Biden has tried to winnow the U.S. military presence in the Middle East and build a regional security alliance capable of countering threats from Iran with limited American backing.

And while U.S. officials say that Biden has yet to decide what price he is willing to pay, the president’s focus on the deal is a reflection of his view that America has to remain a central player in the Middle East to contain Iranisolate Russia for its war in Ukraine and thwart efforts by China to supplant Washington’s interests in the region.

After The Wall Street Journal’s story appeared online Wednesday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that negotiators still had a long way to go. “There is no agreed-to set of negotiations, there’s no agreed-to framework to codify the normalization or any of the other security considerations that we and our friends have in the region,” he said.

In exchange for U.S. concessions to Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration is seeking assurances from Saudi Arabia that it will distance itself—economically and militarily—from China, say U.S. officials.

The officials said the U.S. could seek assurances from Saudi Arabia that it won’t allow China to build military bases in the kingdom—an issue that has become a sore point between the Biden administration and United Arab Emirates. Negotiators could also seek limitations on Saudi Arabia using technology developed by China’s Huawei and assurances that Riyadh will use U.S. dollars, not Chinese currency, to price oil sales, they said. The U.S. also is expected to look for ways to end the feud over oil prices driven by Saudi Arabia’s repeated production cuts.

Mohammed has given conflicting messages about his commitment to different audiences. U.S. officials working on the issue say that Mohammed is serious about trying to broker a deal. But the crown prince has told aides that he isn’t ready to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel similar to those with the United Arab Emirates, which signed a deal in 2020, according to Saudi officials.

The crown prince told his advisers that he was in no rush, especially with the current hard-line coalition government in Israel that opposes creation of an independent Palestinian state, they said.

Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute in Washington, compared the effort to mountain climbers trying to scale several Mount Everests in succession.

“It’s such a dangerous landscape,” he said. “There are four or five things they need to do to make sure they don’t go into thin air and go off the mountain. To me, it seems highly improbable in the short run, but who knows?”

One hurdle facing negotiators is what concessions Israel will have to make to Palestinians in exchange for open diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia. U.S. and Saudi officials say that Israel will have to make a significant offer that advances efforts to create an independent Palestinian state.

Israeli leaders play down the importance of the Palestinian issue in the talks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this week that the issue comes up in negotiations “a lot less than you think.”

“It’s sort of a check box,” he told Bloomberg News. “You have to check it to say that you’re doing it.”

The issue remains one of the least developed points in talks, according to people briefed on the discussions.

Israeli national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said negotiators have yet to float specific ideas with Israeli leaders. “At the moment, we don’t even know where to begin,” he said. “They are still dealing with basic issues between them. So apparently it’s premature even for them to discuss it.”

Saudi officials have dwindling patience for uncompromising and divided Palestinian leaders with limited popular support. But as home to two of the most important holy sites in Islam, Saudi Arabia is looking to secure a meaningful concession from Israel to fend off criticism from rivals in Iran and Turkey looking to accuse the kingdom of quashing Palestinian dreams of an independent state. The Palestinian issue also remains important for activists in Saudi Arabia and around the world.

Netanyahu has made it clear that he is willing to make only modest concessions to the Palestinians, and even those could face opposition from his hard-line coalition partners who want to annex Israeli-occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank.


The logo of the Saudi National Atomic Energy Project (SNAEP): Israeli officials are reportedly concerned about the implications of a Saudi demand to be allowed to enrich uranium domestically for nuclear power (which can easily be converted to military use), in exchange for normalisation (Photo: SNAEP). 

Israeli officials have also expressed concerns about Saudi Arabia’s quest to develop its nuclear-energy program, something they see as a dangerous acceleration of the regional nuclear arms race. Although Israel won’t publicly admit it, it is the only country in the region with nuclear weapons, and it doesn’t want to see others join the small club.

Israeli officials worry that U.S. support for a civilian nuclear program in Saudi Arabia could pave the way for Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons, which Mohammed has said he would do if Iran does so first.

Israel’s Hanegbi said that he had “full confidence” that “whatever the United States will decide” on the issue would address Israeli concerns.

Details of a deal are also expected to face scrutiny in Congress, where many lawmakers are loath to make concessions to Mohammed, who U.S. intelligence officials say gave a green light in 2018 to send a Saudi hit team to Istanbul to kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

U.S. lawmakers are already raising concerns about the prospect of America offering Saudi Arabia treaty-bound assurances that the U.S. would come to the kingdom’s defense if it is attacked—a guarantee that would require Senate approval. Even lesser security guarantees that don’t require explicit support from Congress are likely to face resistance in Washington.

Some lawmakers are opposed to talk of expanding arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which Biden put limits on when he took office in 2021 to protest the kingdom’s use of American weapons in Yemen.

If the U.S. can negotiate a package that is acceptable to Saudi, Israeli, Palestinian, and Congressional leaders, the Biden administration is then hoping that global pressure to support a history-shifting deal would prompt opposition parties in Israel to join forces with Netanyahu and endorse the agreement, something they so far have refused to consider.

Summer Said in Dubai and Dov Lieber in Tel Aviv contributed to this article.


Robert Satloff on Prospects for the Normalization of Saudi-Israeli Relations

by Marilyn Stern

Middle East Forum, August 4, 2023


Washington Institute for Near East Policy Executive Director Dr. Robert Satloff: An Israeli-Saudi normalisation breakthrough would “be transformative for the U.S., Israel, and the Saudis.” (Image: Washington Institute). 

 

Robert Satloff, the Segal Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), spoke to an August 4th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview with Dexter Van Zile, managing editor of the Middle East Forum’s Focus on Western Islamism (FWI). Satloff discussed prospects for a trilateral “integration cooperation agreement” between the U.S., Israel, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). The following is a summary of his comments:

The U.S. role in such an agreement would be “pivotal,” given that the three parties have different priorities based on their own national interests. KSA’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) sees a trilateral deal as part of his vision for a “dramatic fundamental transformation” of his kingdom. A successful deal would help transform KSA’s economy from near complete dependence on its own petrochemical market to a more diversified one. The changes would not only affect its economy, but also transform Saudi society socially, culturally, and even religiously.

A deal with KSA is a strategic priority for Israel because it would confer legitimacy on Israel’s existence as a Jewish state in the Arab and Muslim world. It would also mark the end of the “inter-state” Arab-Israeli conflict that has raged since Israel’s founding in 1948, as well as render the “intra-state” Israeli-Palestinian Arab conflict more “manageable” without damaging Israel’s standing in the Middle East. The unknown variable is whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can convince the current government’s rightwing coalition to support whatever concessions to the Palestinians the deal will presumably require.

A deal of this kind from the Saudi point of view “would be useful . . . reputationally to dramatically change the image of Saudi Arabia from the very negative image of recent years, from the very negative image that goes back to even before 9/11, to a peacemaker hand-in-hand with the Jewish state.”

But “while a deal for Saudi Arabia is useful and beneficial, it is not urgent and necessary, and that’s a big difference. . . . MbS, Muhammad bin Salman, the crowned prince has, shall we say, a lot of fish to fry domestically; this is just one of them.”

Substantively, MbS has his eye on four benefits from the U.S.: (1) A defense treaty between KSA and the U.S. or, absent that, a U.S. memorandum of understanding to counter Iranian aggression; (2) fast-tracking provision of U.S. military goods; (3) a free trade agreement; and (4) making KSA’s natural uranium deposits available as a source for global uranium supplies. Adding a civilian nuclear energy capability, which would draw on these deposits, would diversify KSA’s domestic energy consumption to include nuclear power, thus increasing the export market for its petrochemicals.

The Saudi aim is to create a “nuclear Aramco,” and it will be difficult to deny it this right after the U.S. administration certified the Iranian regime’s right to enrich uranium. With the necessary safeguards, it is better for the U.S. to agree to a deal of this kind; if it will not, MbS will approach France or Russia for the same. As for defense treaties, few countries have such treaties with the U.S., and factions within both parties are likely to object to it because of KSA’s “questionable human rights record.” The Biden administration views the deal as a priority, not only for the benefit of Israel’s acceptance by the Saudis, but also for how the deal could draw in other Arab and Muslim states.

The three benefits of a successful trilateral deal for America are: (1) Clearly delineating the limits of a Saudi-Chinese relationship, particularly in the “military and technology sphere”; (2) ensuring a consistent energy supply by forging a closer relationship with a leading OPEC producer; and (3) getting the Saudis to address human rights issues and legal rights for its citizens and foreigners within KSA. The third benefit is critical to assuaging concerns on Capitol Hill and securing votes for the deal. The most opportune time to pursue the deal is under a Democratic administration rather than a Republican one, according to Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Who better to corral the recalcitrant Saudi critics on the left than a Democratic president?

While there are still many moving parts, it is reasonable to anticipate a breakthrough by late 2023 or early 2024 that will be transformative for the U.S., Israel, and the Saudis.


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2017: MbS will require “both substantive and symbolic” benefits for the Palestinians to agree to any deal (Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo)

To avoid accusations of forging a separate deal with Israel, MbS will seek “both substantive and symbolic” benefits for the Palestinian Arabs. The prospect of the Saudis entering the deal directly and securing Jordanian endorsement of it places them in a position to “impose their views” on the Palestinian Arabs, who are the deal’s “dependent variables.” While there is “deep disdain” among Middle East Arabs for the Palestinian leadership, there is concern about the welfare of the Palestinian people. Symbolic moves the Saudis will likely expect from Israel include foreswearing annexation, committing to some form of Palestinian statehood, and Palestinian control of redeployed areas of the West Bank.

A recent WINEP public opinion poll reveals that the Saudi people support contacts with Israel in areas of business, sports, and culture. While there are still many moving parts, it is reasonable to anticipate a breakthrough by late 2023 or early 2024 that will be transformative for the U.S., Israel, and the Saudis.


Peace with Saudi Arabia is a real possibility – opinion

Normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia could help stabilize the Middle East and benefit the United States.

By MARK REGEV

Jerusalem Post, AUGUST 10, 2023


US President Joe Biden’s famous “fist bump” with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in July 2022: For Biden, a potential Israel-Saudi peace would be “a momentous achievement” that could aid his re-election efforts. (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

 

The widespread assumption has been that under Israel’s current right-wing government, further progress on Middle East peace would be near impossible. But some very serious behind-the-scenes diplomacy currently afoot has the potential to create a breakthrough in Israel’s relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds.

At the end of July, during a reelection fundraiser in Freeport, Maine, US President Joe Biden shared with the audience his hopes for a historic normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. “There’s a rapprochement that may be underway,” Biden said.

The president’s remarks came after a visit to Jeddah by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and the administration’s Middle East envoy, Brett McGurk.

The White House statement on their talks in the kingdom was appropriately guarded, innocuously referring to discussions on “a common vision for a more peaceful, secure, prosperous, and stable Middle East.” Privately, US officials were more upbeat, expressing cautious optimism that progress could be made.

Biden’s comments in Maine followed the publication of a Thomas Friedman piece in The New York Times based on the columnist’s conversation with the president. Friedman reported that Biden was working on “a US-Saudi mutual security pact that would involve Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel.”

Over the past decade, the Jerusalem-Riyadh channel has grown steadily warmer. It is widely assumed that the 2020 Abraham Accords with Gulf states the UAE and Bahrain could not have materialized without some level of Saudi approval.

And in 2022, when El Al aircraft received Riyadh’s permission to fly over Saudi airspace on their routes from Ben-Gurion airport to destinations in Asia, more than one Middle East expert concluded it was a public manifestation of a veiled yet burgeoning relationship – sometimes referred to as “mushroom diplomacy,” after the fungi that grows best in the dark.

Moving Israel-Saudi ties from the shadows into the light of day will require a triangular convergence of interests between Jerusalem, Riyadh, and Washington, and it is quite possible – perhaps even probable – that such a confluence is emerging.

Stabilizing the Middle East

From Biden’s perspective, an Israel-Saudi peace would be a momentous achievement, eclipsing even former US president Donald Trump’s success in brokering the Abraham Accords.

From a national security point of view, the signing of a Saudi-US security pact would stabilize and upgrade Washington’s ties with Riyadh. Of late, these relations have been plagued by recurring problems, from candidate Biden’s comments about making Saudi Arabia a “pariah nation” following the October 2018 murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to Riyadh’s rolling out the red carpet for America’s rival, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in December 2022.

Israel-Saudi normalization would also augment regional stability, with two of Washington’s most important Middle East partners reaching a pro-Western and pro-American accord that would undoubtedly serve US interests.

ADDING THE laurel of peacemaker to Biden’s political persona could prove advantageous in his forthcoming reelection bid. Although Americans seldom prioritize foreign policy at the ballot box, accomplishing an Israel-Saudi deal would demonstrate compelling presidential leadership and help Democrats dispel Republican accusations of an aged and ineffectual chief executive.

For its part, Riyadh could see the approaching presidential election as a window of opportunity to achieve a long-sought-after Saudi-US mutual security pact that would codify Washington’s commitment to protect and defend the kingdom.


The Australian-born former Israeli Ambassador to the UK and spokesperson for PM Netanyahu Mark Regev: Netanyahu “can be expected to rise to the occasion” of a Saudi peace deal, but it is not clear that all his coalition partners will go along. (Photo:  MICHAEL FRIEDSON/THE MEDIA LINE)

In recent years, the pro-Western Arab states have had doubts about Washington’s obligation to their security – fearing the rise of American neo-isolationism or a strategic “pivot” in US priorities away from the Middle East to regions further afield. The signing of a pact would mitigate such concerns by formalizing a Saudi-US alliance.

In addition, Riyadh believes that such an agreement will give its armed forces access to state-of-the-art American military hardware which until now has been denied the kingdom, especially the advanced F-35 stealth combat aircraft.

Saudi Arabia is also demanding US support for its plans to build a civilian nuclear power program, including indigenous enrichment.

While Washington has been reticent to go down that route, Riyadh has a powerful argument: If America is willing to acquiesce to Iran, a professed enemy of the West, operating a “civilian” nuclear program, why can’t a loyal friend build a similar capability? (Many assume that the Saudis want a developed nuclear infrastructure for the eventuality that Tehran crosses the threshold).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared Jerusalem-Riyadh normalization a key goal of his government, knowing full well it would be a geopolitical game-changer. The kingdom’s special status across the Arab world almost guarantees that additional Arab countries, who have been sitting on the fence, would follow Riyadh’s lead.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia enjoys a unique leadership role in the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation. If the kingdom was to make peace with Israel, Muslim-majority countries – from Southeast Asia to Sub-Saharan Africa – could follow suit.

While appreciating that relations with Riyadh would spur additional normalizations, many in Israel will remain wary about the kingdom having unfettered access to advanced US weaponry, as they surely will be over the idea of a Saudi nuclear program.

Of paramount importance is a parallel Jerusalem-Washington dialogue on the parameters and safeguards governing any nuclear development, as well as ensuring that the Saudi military upgrade will not adversely affect the IDF’s qualitative military edge (QME) to which the US is committed.

Presumably, the Palestinian issue cannot be sidelined. But if the Saudis once placed an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and the establishment of a Palestinian state as preconditions for normalization, today Riyadh is in a very different place.

While the kingdom is no longer willing to accept a Palestinian veto over its foreign policy, a deal may nonetheless necessitate Israeli concessions in the West Bank.

Netanyahu might be asked to publicly rule out any unilateral annexations, proclaim an openness to the possibility of eventual Palestinian statehood, and even limit settlement construction.

Although difficult, these sorts of steps are neither unprecedented nor impossible: In exchange for diplomatic relations with the UAE in 2020, Netanyahu shelved plans for annexation. He gave qualified acceptance of Palestinian statehood in his June 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, and more recently in his championing of Trump’s January 2020 “Deal of the Century” Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. He could also revisit the understanding of settlement growth discussed with the Trump White House.

Of course, while Netanyahu can be expected to rise to the occasion, it is not clear that all his coalition partners will go along too.

Ambassador Mark Regev, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. 

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