Media Brief: Saudi-Israel Relations Edition

The media have been buzzing for several months over a possible breakthrough in normalizing Saudi-Israeli relations. I’m going to point to recent news in this vein — for example, there’s a JTA article on the first ever commercial flight between Saudi Arabia and Israel — and then proceed with my own take on what a positive outcome would require.

At the same time, there’s plenty of room for skepticism. In a webinar hosted by the centrist Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, recorded on YouTube, panelists expressed incredulity and puzzlement, especially over how this can be in America’s interest. The Quincy Institute is steeped in the amoral “Realist” school of international relations (as advocated by Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer) and tends to be cold toward both Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Trita Parsi, the Quincy Institute’s executive director, saw no benefit for the Palestinians, thereby missing the concessions that the Saudis would require from Israel — concessions that in my view, should make parties sympathetic to the Palestinian plight at least grudgingly supportive of this initiative.

This improbable development may be gaining momentum, as the Saudis engage in complicated diplomatic maneuvers, some seemingly at cross purposes. A new Saudi envoy in Ramallah pledged renewed support to the Palestinian Authority for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, while the Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz had a Saudi visa in hand to participate in an international UNESCO conference in Riyadh (as reported in the Associated Press and in Al-Monitor).

The Al-Monitor article goes on to report that “while in New York for the United Nations General Assembly summit, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview with Fox News that ‘every day we get closer’ to reaching a normalization deal with Israel.” And in an unprecedented gesture, a Saudi diplomat politely remained in the largely empty chamber as Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the UN General Assembly on Sept. 22nd.

In line with this news trend is this from The Times of Israel:

Saudi Arabia is quietly setting aside the Arab Peace Initiative that it sponsored more than 20 years ago, and is readying for the possibility of normalizing relations with Israel without first securing the establishment of a Palestinian state. . . .
Publicly, Saudi officials continue to stress their support for the 2002 initiative, which offers Israel normalized ties with the entire Arab world once it reaches a two-state solution to its conflict with the Palestinians. . . .
But as Riyadh engages in talks with US President Joe Biden’s administration on normalization with Israel, officials involved say such public statements have devolved into lip service.

Times of Israel article, Sept. 27, by Jacob Magid:

“Saudis putting aside Arab Peace Initiative amid Israel normalization talks – officials”

A Political Earthquake in Israel

That other Al-Monitor article (mentioning the Crown Prince) goes on to outline the elements of a possible deal, including the political earthquake that would need to happen in Israel. As I’ve imagined ever since the stories began to circulate that a diplomatic breakthrough might be in the offing with Saudi Arabia, the concessions required of Israel would shatter Netanyahu’s coalition with the desertion of ultra-right nationalists led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, requiring Benny Gantz’s National Unity party (currently riding high in the opinion polls) to replace them.

These concessions would likely include: a transfer of some of Area C, currently about 60% of the West Bank’s territory in which Israel retains complete security control and civil administration, to Area B over which the Palestinian Authority has civilian administrative authority (pursuant to the Oslo Accords); a halt to the expansion of settlements; plus substantial economic aid to the PA. Taken as a whole, or even separately, none of this would go down well with Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.

There would also be pushback (including some likely violence) from many Palestinians, who would understandably regard this as tokenism and cover for the Saudi regime to extract concessions of its own from the United States, regarding the development of nuclear energy and further security guarantees. This latter element might render difficult the passage of a treaty, if one is deemed necessary, to concretize such a deal with a two-thirds majority in the US Senate. This agreement would also strengthen the ethically-challenged authoritarian regime in Riyadh.

Then there’s the question of Gantz (and/or Lapid) swallowing hard to again enter into a coalition with Netanyahu, having been burnt the first time when Gantz languished as “Alternate Prime Minister” in a rotation agreement that Netanyahu reneged on. Gantz had suddenly abandoned his allies (not to mention his principles) to “save the country” from Covid in 2020, rather than attempt to lead an alternative coalition including one or more of the predominantly Arab parties. This time, he might insist that Netanyahu be the Alternate Prime Minister.

Another element in my imagined scenario would be a role for President Isaac Herzog. (There’s an opinion piece in Haaretz on the suspicion that Netanyahu supported Herzog for the presidency in return for the promise of a pardon.) Herzog could conceivably dangle a pardon in front of Netanyahu if he is finally convicted in the long corruption prosecution he’s enduring. Regardless, one must assume that none of this would transpire without Netanyahu giving up on his executive power grab against the judiciary.

Admittedly, there’s a lot of moving parts here which make it a heavy lift. I haven’t even mentioned a possible split in Likud if Netanyahu were to abandon furthering the settlement enterprise in the West Bank, let alone the judicial overhaul which many (but not all) Likudniks favor. Still, it strikes me as hopeful and surprising that the Saudi normalization deal has gone this far, notwithstanding that it would mean much less than the full Israeli-Palestinian peace that we ultimately want to see.