Saudi-Israel deal progress?/ Israel and Erdogan’s Turkey
Jun 5, 2023 | AIJAC staff
Update 06/23 #01
This Update deals with the renewed discussion that has appeared in recent weeks on US efforts to negotiate a normalisation deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia – to follow up the deals done under the 2020 Abraham Accords which normalised relations with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco (full normalisation with the fourth Abraham accord partner, Sudan, is currently on hold). It also includes a piece looking at the Israeli perspective and dilemmas with respect to the re-election of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 28.
We lead with a report from the Times of Israel on some very positive comments on the prospects of the Israeli-Saudi normalisation deal from former Mossad head Yossi Cohen, who is known to have played a major role in negotiating the original Abraham Accords. Cohen was speaking in the context of two senior Israeli officials – Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi – travelling to Washington last week for meetings with US Administration officials, with Saudi normalisation reportedly a major part of the agenda. The report also discusses some reported Saudi demands for normalisation, including a restart of peace talks with the Palestinians. For this summary of current Israeli speculation about Saudi normalisation prospects, CLICK HERE.
Next up is a piece on the link between Saudi normalisation and the efforts to halt Iran’s rush to nuclear capabilities, written by former Israeli National Security Advisor Brig. (res.) Jacob Nagel. Nagel is particularly concerned that a key Saudi demand in exchange for normalisation is US support for a full-blown Saudi nuclear program, designed to counter Iran’s. Nagel argues that, important as Israeli-Saudi normalisation is, the Saudi nuclear program must be opposed, and suggests some tougher action against Iran’s nuclear program that can obviate the need for Saudi Arabia to obtain its own nuclear capabilities to deter Teheran. For his important argument in full, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Israeli strategic analyst Yaakov Katz looks at Jerusalem’s dilemmas in the wake of the re-election of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey – given that Erdogan is clearly ideologically hostile to Israel, but at the same time is very keen to gain Israel’s agreement to export its natural gas via Turkey. Katz reviews the three options Israel has to export gas to Europe – in addition to the Turkey option, there is the ambitious “East Med” pipeline proposal and a less ambitious plan using Cyprus to export LPG in ships. Katz looks at the conflicting considerations that will go into Israel’s relationship with Erdogan over the next few years. For his complete analysis of the issues at stake, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Another good op-ed on the improving prospects for US-moderated efforts to achieve Israeli-Saudi normalisation, from Ruth Wasserman Lande, the founder and former co-chair of the first Abraham Accords Caucus in the Knesset.
- A longer essay on the road to Israeli-Saudi normalisation, and how it leads through Washington, from former US official Richard Goldberg.
- An interesting piece on the implications of the recent Saudi-Iranian normalisation agreement, including its effects on Israeli-Saudi normalisation hopes, written by former senior Israeli official and academic analyst Dr. Yechiel M. Leiter.
- Reports Iran is both dramatically increasing its offensive military capabilities and making plans to escalate attacks on US troops in Syria by its proxies.
- A story on Israel’s efforts to prepare to defend itself from a multifront attack by Iran and its proxies.
- Analysis of the latest – and very worrying – International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran.
- More comment on Turkey’s election outcome – which seems to have made Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism a semi-permanent aspect of Turkish politics – from Bret Stephens, Soner Cagaptay, Burak Bekdil, and Michael Rubin.
- The latest info on the terrorist attack by an Egyptian border guard yesterday, which left three Israeli soldiers dead.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Colin Rubenstein in the Algemeiner, arguing the UN must not repeat last month’s “Nakba day” ceremony, given the extremism it sparked.
- Justin Amler on the history of sporting boycotts against Israel, and how sporting roof bodies can do more to stop this discriminatory behaviour, contrary to the spirit of sport.
Deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia is ‘absolutely possible,’ says ex-Mossad chief
Yossi Cohen, citing ‘personal knowledge’ of potential dealings, strikes optimistic note, as senior Netanyahu aides said to be headed for Washington
By LAZAR BERMAN
Times of Israel, 28 May 2023,
Speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies, Cohen — Israel’s top spy from 2016-2021 — said, “in my opinion – and here I am leaning on personal knowledge on the topic — it is absolutely possible.”
“There is indeed in the Middle East a new era in which brave leaders… know how to create normalization,” he added.
There has been a flurry of reports that US-brokered talks between Jerusalem and Riyadh on starting direct flights for Hajj pilgrims are in advanced stages.
A flight deal could have the potential to lead to a wider normalization deal — which has long been sought by Israel but largely rejected by the Saudis.
In exchange for full normalization with Israel, Saudis are said to be demanding that the White House unfreeze some Trump-era weapons deals that were frozen when US President Joe Biden took office, and are also seeking a defense treaty with the US, similar to NATO, as well as the US stamp of approval for a civilian nuclear program.
An unsourced Channel 12 report last week claimed that Washington and Riyadh are both seeking to pressure Israel into restarting diplomatic talks with the Palestinians that will lead to a “separation,” and the US is also demanding that Netanyahu pull his government’s controversial judicial overhaul plan in exchange for normalization with Riyadh.
At the same INSS event, Foreign Ministry Director-General Ronen Levy said that, while ties with Riyadh are extremely important, “we must not dismiss other countries that have the potential for normalization before Saudi Arabia.”
He added that he hopes that there would deals reached with such states in the coming months.
Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi will travel to meet senior officials in Washington DC this week, according to a US media report.
Dermer and Hanegbi are expected to meet with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and other top-level officials from the White House and State Department to discuss the Iranian nuclear threat and peace prospects with Saudi Arabia, four Israeli and US officials told the Axios news site.
An official in the Prime Minister’s Office said dates have not been finalized, while a White House National Security Council spokesperson told the site there was nothing to confirm.
Both Hanegbi and Dermer are considered close confidants of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The premier’s reported attempts to angle for a White House invitation for himself have fallen flat amid US criticism of the government’s plans to overhaul Israel’s judiciary and ramp up settlement building.
Hanegbi denied that there had been any direct conversations between Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in recent months, but said a normalization deal was possible.
“There is in Saudi Arabia a leader that the world has never seen before, a man who took his country 180 degrees in a different direction, a bold and revolutionary leader,” Hanegbi said. “If he thinks that it is possible to reach normalization with Israel, it will happen. I believe there is a chance this will happen.”
In a historic move last year, Saudi Arabia announced that it opened its airspace to all civilian overflights, hours before Biden became the first US leader to directly fly from Israel to the Gulf nation.
Last week, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen touted the possibility of normalization with Saudi Arabia within six months, during an interview with Channel 12’s Meet the Press.
Cohen cited Jerusalem and Riyadh’s joint interests — notably preventing Iran from creating a nuclear bomb — as a reason to be hopeful for a deal.
Saudi Arabia’s decision in March to renew ties with Iran, after over half a decade, was seen by some as a setback for normalization between the kingdom and Israel.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan meeting Israeli President Herzog earlier this year: Sullivan says advancing Israel-Saudi normalisation is a US “national security interest” and has been negotiating with Saudi leaders on the Administration’s behalf (Photo: Kobi Gideon/Israeli Government Press Office).
But the Biden administration has continued to work on striking such a deal in recent months, with Sullivan calling it a “national security interest” earlier this month.
Shortly after those comments, Sullivan flew to Riyadh, where he met with bin Salman and raised the issue. He was accompanied by senior White House aides Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein, who subsequently traveled to Jerusalem to brief Netanyahu on the status of the endeavor.
Levy also spoke with administration officials about a potential Saudi deal during his trip to Washington last week.
Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia in November 2020 to meet with bin Salman, the first publicly reported meeting between the two. Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations, but clandestine ties have strengthened in recent years, due to the Iranian threat.
Emanuel Fabian, Jacob Magid, and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.
Saudi normalisation should not come at the expense of Israel’s top priority: Preventing a bad Iran deal
By Jacob Nagel
Israeli Hayom, June 1, 2023
Israeli officials should insist on having the US trigger the snapback mechanism in the JCPOA to its fullest extent. This will make it possible to move forward with a Saudi-American-Israeli deal that also addresses Riyadh’s nuclear demands. It will also open the door to joint Israeli-American action against the Iranian program.
While a normalisation deal with Saudi Arabia is important to Israel, the price cannot be acceptance of an absurd “less for less” nuclear deal with Iran to succeed the defunct JCPOA agreement (as announced in 2015, above), Nagel argues. (Photo: US Department of State)
Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi, and his senior deputy Gil Reich are all in Washington for meetings with senior White House and state officials, ahead of critical decisions regarding Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Israel must not be confused about the priorities of what should be presented during the talks. It is very important to prevent a potential error in judgment (perhaps unintentional) and to make sure the United States understands that preventing a bad agreement regarding the Iranian nuclear program has not been relegated to second priority after reaching a deal with Saudi Arabia. The potential for damage is very severe.
The US and the clerical regime in Iran have recently held more talks, which included mediators from Oman, Kuwait, and others. These were aimed at reaching a nuclear deal known as “less for less”, which is actually “much less for much more”. Just reading the recent interviews of Robert Malley, the president’s envoy to the negotiations with Iran, and Ali Vaez, his successor as the International Crisis Group’s Iran project director, reveals that the discussions are serious.
Despite these efforts, there is still the risk that the Israeli focus will be on a Saudi-American-Israeli deal, which in itself is very important. This could result in the effort to prevent a faulty temporary agreement with Iran, which will certainly become permanent, dropping to second place.
There is a close connection between some of the components of a Saudi deal and proper handling of the Iranian nuclear program, and the right way is to try and tie them together and reach a deal that will be a win-win for Israel, and also for the United States, despite the latter potentially not viewing it this way.
In the meetings held between the negotiators from the United States and Saudi Arabia, some Saudi demands were raised, most of which were not directly related to Israel, and the decisions regarding them must be made exclusively in Washington, taking into account the indirect effects on Israel and maintaining its qualitative edge. On the other hand, the demands related to independent nuclear capabilities are directly and worryingly related to Israel, Iran, and the entire region. On this sensitive issue, Israel must refrain from making mistakes.
According to open-source assessments and publications coming presumably from Saudi sources, Riyadh’s main demands are as follows: security guarantees; advanced arms deals; getting the same status as a NATO ally; a free trade zone between the countries; reducing pressure on human rights issues; and more. Israel can live with all these demands if its qualitative military edge is maintained by the United States.
Regarding the “civilian” nuclear issues, the Saudis requested fully independent capabilities that would enable them to commercially tap their natural resources, including mining uranium and turning it into a “yellowcake”, converting it to gas (UF6), and enriching it to the level required to produce nuclear fuel rods for power reactors (electricity generation), for domestic use and export purposes. The Saudis apparently demanded that the capabilities be exploited entirely on Saudi soil. They are unlikely to object to any monitoring and inspection required by the United States and the IAEA. It will be very difficult for Israel to accept these demands, as presented.
Saudi demands, of course, are based on the faulty precedent created by the JCPOA, which gave Iran expansive independent enrichment capabilities and advanced centrifuge R&D on Iranian soil. It is therefore possible to understand where Saudi Arabia is coming from in seeing these demands as legitimate, even if one does not agree with them. In their view, the Iranians, who violated every treaty and agreement they signed and deceived the world, received the right to independent enrichment, so why shouldn’t they get the same? Understanding the Saudi argument is key to the solution that I will present to reach a win-win situation.
The rationale behind the alleged nuclear deal the US and Iran are working on is freezing Iran’s progress – i.e. granting Iran de facto approval to enrich uranium to 60% – in exchange for the release of some of Iran’s frozen funds (in Iraq and South Korea) and perhaps also the release of prisoners. Israel must clarify in advance what the dangers in this absurd deal are, and present strong opposition – even if it will harm the potential progress toward the very important Saudi deal.
The absurdity in the emerging Iran deal is even magnified when you add up the time that has elapsed since the idea was first raised by the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and if you take note of the change in the fundamentals since then. America’s overarching goal of having a one-year breakout period is no longer relevant; an agreement will result in that window total perhaps no more than a few weeks while giving the Iranians tens of billions of dollars that would enable the regime to recover economically and to continue financing terrorism.
Since the idea was first raised, Tehran has been massively enriching to 20% (this is the main problem, although everyone emphasizes enrichment to 90%, which is mostly semantic and declarative), and to 60%, and even “dabbled” in 84% enrichment, even though the IAEA is about to close this investigation file. Iran produces uranium metal, prevents the inspectors from accessing suspicious sites, and maintains all paths to the bomb.
The deal would legitimize Iran’s violations and allow it to retain all the assets it has obtained through those violations. At the same time, the IAEA continues to close its investigation files on the Iranian issue. This could undo the agency’s very raison d’être.
The agreement will allow Iran to continue in its development and manufacturing of advanced centrifuges, as well as give it permission to hold on to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. It will also continue weaponization – the only thing that truly separates Tehran from having nuclear capability. Meanwhile, its true status will continue to be largely hidden.
The agreement will stop any activity against Iran’s nuclear program by the United States, certainly in an election year, under the mistaken assumption that the plan is “back in a box”, as Sullivan phrased it, and will prevent, or at least make it very difficult, for Israel to attack alone.
All this – while the Iranians attack American interests in the Gulf and in the Middle East, violate human rights and kill women and girls in Tehran, and continue their massive support for Russia by transferring advanced weapons that help kill Ukrainian women and girls.
Therefore, the correct and practically the only way to advance a Saudi deal that would help bring about normalization with Israel, overcome the issue of Riyadh’s request for an independent fuel cycle, and take the bad deal with Iran off the table, is to have the Israelis – during their meetings in Washington – insist on triggering the snapback mechanism to the fullest extent against Iran, by reinstating all UN Security Council sanctions that were lifted when the agreement was signed, including a total ban on uranium enrichment.
Such an American demand, even if it will not come to be in the end because of an Iranian objection, will pull the rug under the Saudis’ enrichment demands, make it possible to move forward with a Saudi-American-Israeli deal, without the nuclear threat from Saudi Arabia, and open the door to joint Israeli-American action against the Iranian nuclear program.
Nagel warns that allowing a full Saudi nuclear fuel cycle – as Riyadh is demanding in exchange for normalisation – will trigger a regional nuclear arms race. Tougher action against Iran’s program is a better way to create preconditions for normalisation, he urges. (Image: Shutterstock, garmoncheg).
Any American approval to give Saudi Arabia the right to enrich uranium on its soil – certainly if it will be without strong Israeli opposition and regardless of the level of supervision in Saudi Arabia and who will actually be responsible for the enrichment – will immediately trigger a similar demand from countries that have already received some civilian nuclear capabilities from the United States (the UAE, for example) while complying with the so-called “123 rules” that cover all dangers, and from other countries in the Middle East. A nuclear arms race will then begin.
A bad nuclear deal will once again inflict a heavy toll on Israel, so Israel must act against it in a loud and unified manner, even if the potential for advancing the Saudi deal, which is very important to Israel, is undermined in the process. This critical issue should remain the number one priority and must not be included in any Israeli political controversy. Sources inside Israel, official and unofficial, who express the opinion that even a bad agreement has advantages, such as giving Israel more time to prepare for a future confrontation with Iran, are wrong and misleading, and they also harm Israeli interests.
At the same time, Iran is trying to draw Israel into a multi-front confrontation and to remain, at least for now, out of real physical confrontation. Israel cannot allow Iran to get away with that, and at the same time, Israel must continue to improve its capabilities – military or otherwise. The Israeli message against an agreement with Iran must be crystal clear; any other form of conduct will send the message – especially to the Gulf states – that Israel is weak and cannot be trusted.
Brigadier General (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion’s Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security advisor and head of the National Security Council (acting).
Now that Erdogan is firmly in power, what is Israel’s Turkish dilemma? – opinion
With Erdogan now in office for another five years and possibly longer, the expectation in Jerusalem is that it is only a matter of time before he invites Netanyahu for a visit to Ankara.
By YAAKOV KATZ
Jerusalem Post, JUNE 2, 2023
Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Solidly in charge after his election win, but his re-election creates some dilemmas for Israel, especially with respect to gas export plans. (Photo: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo)
A little over two weeks after he swept the last election in November, Benjamin Netanyahu received a phone call from Ankara. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on the line for the first call between the two leaders in over nine years.
In a statement that Netanyahu’s office put out, the incoming prime minister said that he agreed with Erdogan “to work together to launch a new era in ties between Turkey and Israel” and after Erdogan’s victory in the second round of elections on Sunday, that “new era” has now come.
Both leaders are now solidly in their leadership roles – as solid as one can be in the Israeli political system – and both now have an opportunity to confront some of the tough and challenging issues on their nation’s joint agenda. The first and foremost is gas.
With Erdogan now in office for another five years and possibly longer, the expectation in Jerusalem is that it is only a matter of time before he invites Netanyahu for a visit to Ankara. It is there that he will want to discuss ways to get his hands on Israel’s gas and to serve as the main energy conduit from the eastern Mediterranean to mainland Europe.
In Israel, there is already a debate within government and defense circles about what to do, whether the country can rely on Turkey and if it is safe to put its gas in the hands of a man who not that long ago was one of the most vile and vocal antisemites in the world.
“It would be a huge mistake to send the gas through Turkey and have Erdogan’s finger on the Israeli faucet,” explained one former top defense official who until not that long ago was intimately involved in Israeli-Turkey relations.
The concern in Israel is that Erdogan has not really changed. They recall the man who in 2009 walked off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos to not to have to share it with Shimon Peres or likened Israeli operations in Gaza to Nazi atrocities. What has changed, some officials claim, is simply a geopolitical understanding that Turkey needs Israel to boost Ankara’s value in Europe and to, as a result, lift the local and failing Turkish economy.
Three options for the Israeli prime minister
AT THE moment, there are three options that are on the table for Netanyahu to rule between. The first is the long-touted EastMed pipeline that would run for about 1,900 km. and connect gas fields in Israeli, Greek and Cypriot economic waters and transport it to mainland Europe. Former Likud minister Yuval Steinitz was the main proponent of this plan and for years it seemed viable, helping Jerusalem forge closer ties with Nicosia and Athens.
The EastMed pipeline proposal – the most ambitious, but also most expensive and time-consuming, option for exporting Israeli gas to Europe. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
The problem is that for all the talks and meetings that have gone into this idea it has not moved forward, mainly because of the price tag for such a long pipeline that would reach over $6 billion and take years to lay at the bottom of the Mediterranean.
Despite the skepticism, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen was recently in Nicosia for a meeting with his Cypriot and Greek counterparts during which the trio discussed the pipeline project. In addition, the Italian parliament’s foreign affairs committee called on the government to help promote the initiative, in which Italy’s leading energy company Edison is considering investing.
The second – and deemed to be more feasible – option is the construction of a shorter underwater pipeline that would connect Israel’s gas fields with Vassilikos, Cyprus, where an liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal is currently in the final stages of completion. There, the Israeli gas can be liquified, loaded onto boats and then shipped to Europe. In effect, this is a shorter model to the one that Israel currently uses in Egypt where it already pipes gas that is then liquified in Damietta and shipped – albeit on a longer route – to Europe.
And then there is the Turkish proposal. On the one hand, it is attractive since a new pipeline would give Israel direct access to the Southern Corridor Pipeline that already runs through Turkey and connects the Caucasus with Europe. This would provide Israel with a clear path to Europe without needing to run 1,900 km. worth of pipes on the seabed. One challenge, that has yet to be worked, out would be getting Cyprus – a country embroiled in conflict with Turkey – to agree to run a pipe from Israeli gas fields to Turkey through its territorial waters.
Europe is pushing for an answer and is looking to begin work on one of the three options as soon as possible with the aim of seeing some of the Israeli gas flow to the continent by 2026 or 2027. With the war in Ukraine still raging, Europe does not want to have to return to relying on one source for its energy supply. It wants diversity and that is something it can receive from Israel.
And this is where Erdogan comes into the picture. Can Israel trust him and can Israeli-Turkish relations return to what they once were? Until 2009, for example, Israeli Air Force jets regularly trained in Turkish airspace and Israeli defense companies sold billions of dollars of technology to the Turkish military. Can this alliance be restored?
There is no clear answer, and Israel will need to tread carefully. On the one hand, putting the future of its gas exports in the hands of a man who intentionally deteriorated relations is not the smartest move. Beyond the risk, doing so will also undermine Israel’s close ties with Greece and Cyprus.
On the other hand, rejecting the offer could put Israeli-Turkish relations, which have only recently begun to thaw, back on ice. Might this be an opportunity for Israel to restore close relations with a regional superpower and member of NATO?
The writer is the immediate past editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.