Saudi Arabia Prefers Implicit Normalization with Israel

Signed at the White House on September 15, the new peace agreements between Israel on the one side and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain on the other constitute a geostrategic shift for all three countries. Thus there is the looming question: will Saudi Arabia be next?

While such a prospect cannot be ruled out, the chances that Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Israel remain small for the foreseeable future. Even when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) becomes king, which now seems very likely, he will probably adhere to the kingdom’s formal position, namely that Saudi Arabia will not make peace with Israel until it accepts the 2002 Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative (API). From its side, Israel will make do with the ample benefits that will flow from implicit normalization with Saudi Arabia. As to the UAE and Bahrain, their shift to formal relations with Israel may bring significant rewards, including the possible provision of the American F-35 fighters to the UAE, not to mention an even closer bond with an American administration that they surely hope will have a second run. A mix of implicit and explicit normalization is thus a winning formula with only one major loser: the Palestinians.

Implicit Normalization and Its Limits

Speaking in May 2017 of Israel’s expanding, behind-the-scenes relations with Arab states, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted that “What is actually happening has never happened in the history of Israel, even when we signed agreements.” This observation underscored the benefits of implicit normalization. Partly hidden from the public eye and unbound by the formal legal commitments that often accompany public pacts, implicit normalization can be leveraged, celebrated, or conveniently denied to give the key parties ample room for maneuver. But there are limits beyond which this dance cannot go without tripping up one or both partners. The trick is either to avoid these pitfalls or, when circumstances change, to shift as nimbly as possible to explicit peacemaking.

Partly hidden from the public eye and unbound by the formal legal commitments that often accompany public pacts, implicit normalization can be leveraged, celebrated, or conveniently denied to give the key parties ample room for maneuver.

This is the story of UAE-Israel ties. While their cooperation goes back a good number of years, implicit normalization gathered real momentum in concert with the Obama Administration’s 2014-15 push to secure an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Emirati, Bahraini, and Saudi leaders viewed this effort not only as a strategic boon to Iran but as dangerous repudiation of what they deemed to be Washington’s special relations with the Gulf Arab states—hence the outreach to Israel. The problem was, however, that there was nothing for the Palestinians in the resultant closer Gulf-Israeli relations.

The UAE-Israel peace treaty now has not, of course, fulfilled the wish of addressing the Palestinian issue either. Far from securing Israel’s commitment to pursue talks with the Palestinians, the UAE was offered a negative kind of reward: Netanyahu’s hint that he would defer annexing more West Bank territory until a later date. Some American experts argue that the UAE might use the treaty to nudge Israel and the Palestinians to renew talks. The more likely outcome is that Israeli leaders will view the UAE’s decision to normalize relations without gaining major concessions as proof positive that the region’s strategic landscape is being altered in ways that will help Israel impose its will on the Palestinians.

Explicit Normalization Brings Unequal Rewards

Netanyahu surely welcomes this changed landscape. For while opposing many key elements of the White House’s “peace plan,” he has reminded his followers that the plan will facilitate Israel’s further incorporation of 30 percent of the occupied West Bank. In an August 17 interview, he not only bragged that he had inserted “sovereignty” into the heart of the US peace plan and thus, as he put it, “I made it happen”; he suggested he would renew the push to incorporate more Palestinian territories after signing the normalization deal with the UAE. Affirming this point, Netanyahu has proclaimed an end to the concept of “land for peace.”

Netanyahu’s assertion that he has merely suspended annexation is not how the UAE views the peace deal. In fact, the UAE ambassador to the United States insists that the agreement “immediately stops annexation.” Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s statements will not unduly worry Emirati leaders; while they might feel a tinge of buyer’s remorse, their priority is UAE security interests and, in a larger sense, the quest to solidify an Emirati national identity. This perspective played a major role in prompting the White House’s campaign to persuade Gulf Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. White House advisors—and Trump himself (not to mention Israeli leaders)—have made clear that their ultimate goal is to secure a Saudi-Israeli peace treaty. While acknowledging that this will take time, President Trump’s advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner argues that such an agreement is now inevitable.

Factors Favoring an Israeli-Saudi Deal

The nearly 20-year history of Saudi-Israeli implicit normalization is studded with starts and stops. A low point was reached in 2014 when, in the wake of Israel’s devastating summer invasion of Gaza, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, reportedly accused Netanyahu of lying after he pulled back from plans to submit a Saudi-Israeli peace initiative before the United Nations. While this clash led to a year-long rift, the two countries are now at a very different moment.

However one judges the US president’s Middle East policies, it was the Trump White House that vigorously pressured the UAE and Bahrain on explicit normalization.

There are at least two factors that not only favor continuing cooperation but even a potential move to full relations. The first is the possible reelection of Donald Trump. However one judges the US president’s Middle East policies, it was the Trump White House that vigorously pressured the UAE and Bahrain on explicit normalization. Although the peace agreements feted at the White House are unlikely to lead to a Palestinian-Israeli agreement, this is of far less import for the Trump Administration compared to the strategic and political “win” that has been welcomed by Congress and by all the key American Jewish groups—including liberal J-Street. In light of all this, Saudi leaders will have a compelling reason to closely cooperate with a possible second Trump Administration and thus might be amenable to normalizing relations with Israel if Trump wins the election.

The second incentive to normalize would be MbS’s ascension to the throne. While he is a ruthless autocrat with a murderous record, MbS is driven by an ambitious vision of the region and of Saudi Arabia’s place in the Middle East and the world. He unfolded his agenda during an April 2, 2018 interview in The Atlantic during which he stated that “I believe that each people … the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to their own land.” If this wording left unclear the precise relationship between Israeli-Palestinian and Saudi-Israeli normalization, in a phone call with Trump that occurred less than a week later, King Salman reportedly reaffirmed “the kingdom’s steadfast” support for “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.” Salman reiterated this message after the announcement of the Emirati-Israeli deal in August, insisting that Saudi Arabia would not follow suit absent a genuine Palestinian-Israeli agreement and Israel’s acceptance of the Saudi-inspired API. But this position could fall by the wayside once MbS becomes king and thus seemingly well positioned to advance his agenda, despite possible opposition from within and outside the kingdom.

Religious Factor Not Favoring Normalization

The most significant obstacle to an MbS-led push for formal normalization with Israel is the nature of the Saudi state.  When he is king and thus the ultimate “custodian” of the Islamic world’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, MbS will face constraints from a clerical establishment whose conservative cadres remain influential despite his efforts to control the top echelons of their religious institutions.

MbS has repeatedly demonstrated that he is ready to silence clerical opposition to his social and economic reforms and that he will not abide calls for democratic change. But he has also continued to give clerics room to express their long-standing animosities toward Jews––even as he signaled a more pluralist vision of Muslim-Jewish relations. MbS has hosted US Jewish lay and religious leaders in Saudi Arabia, allowed Saudi-owned MBC to broadcast a TV drama series that portrays a fictious Gulf Arab Jewish community in a very positive light, and certainly played a major role in the visit of Mohamed al-Issa (Secretary General of the Mecca-based Muslim World League and close associate of the Crown Prince) to the US Holocaust Museum in 2018 and to Auschwitz itself in 2020, where he denounced the Nazis’ “crime against humanity.” But these initiatives unfolded even as the Saudi government continued to publish school text books that describe Jews in classic anti-Semitic and hateful terms.

This dual strategy to change Saudi Arabia’s image abroad while appeasing the clerical establishment at home suggests that MbS will not be free to adopt domestic or foreign policies that religious leaders oppose. Thus, if he pushes for normalization with Israel that is not preceded by a serious effort to implement the API, MbS will face a backlash from clerical leaders who will surely try to mobilize popular support against him. Such a prospect could trigger efforts from within his own ruling circles to clip his foreign policy wings. Whatever his autocratic impulses, he must still attend to the dynamics of alliance maintenance within the royal family and the network of advisers who have backed him.

The Geostrategic Regional and Global Contexts

Beyond the above incentives is the wider regional and geostrategic context that Saudi leaders are grappling with on a daily basis. On this score, their central challenge is how to address—and possibly put a halt to—the Yemen conflict which, apart from its appalling humanitarian consequences, is sapping the resources that MbS might otherwise muster to advance his ambitious “Saudi Vision 2030.” Saudi leaders see this war through the lens of their conflict with Iran and thus are loath to recognize their own responsibility for the bloodletting. Nevertheless, because Iranian support for the Houthis has magnified this conflict, it is difficult to imagine any solution that would not also address the wider—if interconnected—roles that the Iranian-Arab and US-Iranian tensions play in Yemen. Indeed, absent any effective multilateral diplomatic framework that incorporates these two geostrategic arenas, Saudi Arabia will continue to find itself knee deep in Yemen’s endless fighting.

It could be plausibly argued that a shift to explicit normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel could tip the regional balance of power to a point that heightens Iranian fears and increases tensions, thus complicating the Yemen issue further.

It could be plausibly argued that a shift to explicit normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel could tip the regional balance of power to a point that heightens Iranian fears and increases tensions, thus complicating the Yemen issue further. At present, Saudi Arabia does not appear willing to abide these tensions or exacerbate them with Iran to the point of actual conflict. In fact, Iran may be indirectly persuaded to reduce its support for the Houthis or to push them to negotiate an end to their military campaign if it saw that Saudi Arabia is not rushing to start full relations with Israel like the UAE and Bahrain did. In other words, a gesture of rejecting open normalization with Israel may persuade Iran to actually make serious concessions regarding Yemen so that Saudi Arabia feels secure enough about its southern neighbor.

Of course, this depends on the United States also and whether it is interested in a diplomatic approach to the Yemen conflict that would involve Iran. It is difficult to imagine the Trump Administration taking this track, particularly since thus far, its Iran policy has pivoted around the goal of regime change that, by definition, excludes any notion of a real negotiation. That said, if whoever sits in the Oval Office on January 20, 2021 decides to take the notion of negotiations with Iran seriously, it would be helpful if Saudi Arabia did not explicitly normalize relations with Israel. At any rate, given the domestic and regional constraints facing MbS, the crown prince will probably prefer the advantages of implicit normalization over the risks that could come with moving to a formal treaty with Israel.

The Cost of Full Normalization

An explicit, full normalization could hold considerable material advantages. Israel-Gulf trade is estimated to be around $1 billion and could, according to some experts, increase to $25 billion. Although most of this trade would flow between the UAE and Israel, Saudi Arabia would continue to accrue the benefits of security cooperation with Israel. Reports that Israel has provided Saudi Arabia not merely with intelligence support but also hard assets, such as ground-to-air anti-missile defenses, suggests that Riyadh is well positioned to reap the rewards of the region’s transforming geostrategic map. The leaders of Israel, UAE, and Bahrain have embraced this new map.

However, the ongoing normalization will leave other regional conflicts festering. The big losers will be the Palestinians and all those present and future generations of both Palestinians and Israelis whose dreams of peace will be deferred indefinitely. While there is no refuting the rewards of peace agreements in general, the paradoxical fact is that every successful bid at Arab-Israeli peacemaking since the 1979 Egypt-Israel pact has weighted the regional balance of power in favor of those Israeli leaders most determined to prevent a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If this sad legacy demands new thinking from all the key players, not least of which is the United States, the prospects for reimagining how bilateral peacemaking might be directed toward the region’s oldest dispute––the Palestinian-Israeli conflict––now seem more remote than ever before.