Saudi-Israeli Normalization and the Hamas Attack

When Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) sat down on September 20 with Brett Baier of Fox News for his first English-language television interview, he indicated that prospects for a deal to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel were on track, saying “every day, we get closer.” While he added that “for us, the Palestinian issue is very important” and needed to be resolved, his comment on Israel reinforced a view that negotiations for the ‘deal of the century’ were well underway. Leaks to media outlets that outlined contours of the three-way talks related to defense, energy, and civilian nuclear power added to the sense that Saudi, Israeli, and US officials were pushing hard for a breakthrough that MBS asserted would be “the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War.”

Largely absent from the stream of material released into the public domain was any meaningful consideration of Palestinian interests, which at times appeared to be seen more as a concession in the tri-party efforts to reach an equilibrium that would allow Saudi and Israeli officials to ‘sell’ any deal domestically. An October 4 article by Faisal Abbas, editor-in-chief of the Riyadh-based Arab News, suggested that a team within the Saudi Foreign Ministry had been examining ‘every detail imaginable’ to ‘boost the Palestinian economy through exports to Israel and other neighbors,’ but did not elaborate on specific policy proposals. Just three days later, on October 7, the limitations of an approach that seemed to reduce the Palestinian issue to a piece on a geopolitical chessboard, at least in public statements, became clear when Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) militants launched an attack on Israel that was unprecedented in its ferocity, scale, and violence.

Memories of 1973

With more than 2,000 people killed on both sides of the Israel-Gaza border in the first five days of the conflict, the situation facing Israel is arguably the most serious since the October War of 1973, whose fiftieth anniversary was the day before Hamas made its move, and may have been a factor in its decision and timing. The October (or Yom Kippur/Ramadan) War also began with an attack, by neighboring states, Egypt and Syria, rather than by a non-state actor, which caught Israel by surprise and prompted searing inquiry into intelligence failings to predict or pre-empt the strike. Israel quickly regained the initiative in 1973 but the initial success of Egyptian and Syrian forces resonated deeply across the Arab world, as did the oil embargo launched by Saudi Arabia and other Arab producers. Indeed, it was the legacies of the energy crisis, rather than the October War of 1973, that were the focus of much remembrance in the days leading up to the half-century anniversary on October 6.

A major difference between 1973 and today is that Israel is no longer regionally isolated. Egypt and Jordan signed peace accords with it in 1979 and 1994, respectively, while the Abraham Accords in 2020 normalized its political, economic, and diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. The decades in-between saw a gradual yet significant move in favor of the principle of pragmatic engagement, bilaterally, like Oman’s hosting visits by Israeli prime ministers in 1994 (Yitzhak Rabin), 1996 (Shimon Peres), and 2018 (Benjamin Netanyahu), and collectively, with the Arab Peace Initiative (API) spearheaded by Saudi Arabia’s then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in 2002. Views toward Israel had begun to recalibrate after the Gulf crisis of 1990-91 occasioned by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, when Saudi officials in particular appreciated Israel’s restraint under fire from Scud missiles in the Gulf War. A pattern of discrete contacts between Gulf Arab and Israeli policymakers began at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and gradually increased in size and scope in the years that followed.

Split on Normalization or Role Playing?

As attention is now drawn to what happens next in the Gaza Strip and whether the conflict widens and draws in other armed militant groups or neighboring and regional states, the prospect of Israeli-Saudi normalization has been overtaken by events. Whether a deal was as close as officials in the Biden administration seemed to think may never become fully apparent, but the evolving situation on the ground in Gaza has certainly punctured a narrative that had been rather more US- than Saudi-centric. There also had been mixed signals coming out of Riyadh as Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud restated Saudi support for an independent Palestinian state at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Nayef al-Sudairi, the recently appointed Saudi Ambassador to Palestine, similarly reaffirmed the kingdom’s stance on the API during a historic first visit to the West Bank in late-September. Among other things, the API proposed full Arab normalization with Israel in return for its withdrawal from all occupied territories, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and the return of refugees.

As attention is now drawn to the Gaza Strip, the prospect of Israeli-Saudi normalization has been overtaken by events.

With MBS’s declarations and the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s insistence on the API, it is hard for outsiders to determine the degree to which the mixed signals reflect a lack of consensus within the Saudi leadership over Israel and normalization. It is also hard to see if the signals are simply the result of different things being said to different audiences at different times. Nevertheless, the ‘Israel file’ is one of the few issues where it has been possible to detect signs of a division in the Al Saud family in recent years, as Mohammed bin Salman otherwise has centralized his political power and control over domestic and foreign policymaking. In 2018, amid the fallout from the relocation of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud made support for Palestine the central issue of an Arab League Summit he hosted in Dhahran and used the occasion to reiterate Saudi opposition to unilateral actions which contravened internationally agreed positions. His lifelong commitment to Palestine was seen to contrast with sharp criticism of Palestinian positions reportedly made by MBS during his lengthy visit to the United States a month earlier.

Responses to the announcement of the Abraham Accords involving Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain in 2020 provided further indication of splits between senior members of the royal family in Saudi Arabia, albeit at the level of retired rather than actively serving figures. Most prominently, Bandar bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi Ambassador to the United States between 1983 and 2005, blamed the Palestinian leadership for repeatedly “bet[ting] on the losing side, and that comes at a price” in an interview with Al-Arabiya. By contrast, Turki al-Faisal, Bandar’s successor in Washington and himself a longtime head of Saudi intelligence, accused Israel of being the “last of the western colonizing powers in the Middle East” in an appearance alongside Israeli officials at the annual Manama Dialogue in Bahrain. King Salman also was reportedly angered by the apparent marginalization of Palestinian interests in the normalization agreements in 2020.

It is hard for outsiders to determine the degree to which the mixed signals reflect a lack of consensus within the Saudi leadership over Israel and normalization.

In a telephone call on October 9, Mohammed bin Salman assured Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Saudi Arabia continued to “stand by the Palestinian people” and their aspirations. In the aftermath of the Hamas attack and the Israeli response, Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan in particular was actively engaged in reaching out to his Egyptian, Jordanian, and Qatari counterparts as well as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Josep Borell, the European Union’s high representative for foreign and security policy. Faisal bin Farhan emphasized the need for a ‘joint action plan’ to prevent the conflict from escalating and spreading, and the Saudi leadership may see a chance to position the kingdom at the heart of the regional diplomatic response to the unfolding crisis in Gaza. This would be consistent with the emphasis since 2021 on portraying Mohammed bin Salman as a statesman and with the centrality of Saudi Arabia in addressing regional and international issues, most recently by hosting Ukraine talks in Jeddah last August.

Limiting the Damage of the Hamas Attack

As 2023 marks the midpoint between 2016, when Mohammed bin Salman unveiled his ambitious plan to transform the Saudi economy, and 2030, the year that has become so associated with his Vision, attempts to ‘de-risk’ the landscape have become Saudi priorities. The need to de-escalate potential flashpoints that could derail or at least undermine the focus on domestic economic development explains the decision in March 2023 to restore diplomatic relations with Iran. With so many of the ‘giga-projects’ aimed at attracting non-religious tourism and turning Saudi Arabia into a travel, leisure, and sporting powerhouse, the crown prince cannot afford another round of regional instability and conflict, especially if the target of attracting 150 million visitors a year by 2030 is to be met. Memories are still raw of the 2019 missile and drone attack on the Saudi oil infrastructure and the sight of the 2022 Formula One Grand Prix in Jeddah taking place against the backdrop of smoke billowing from a Houthi strike on a nearby fuel depot.

Saudi officials will therefore pay close attention to any sign that the conflict might spread beyond Gaza and the Israeli-Lebanon border.

Saudi officials will therefore pay close attention to any sign that the conflict might spread beyond Gaza and the Israeli-Lebanon border, as will leaders in other Gulf states, especially the UAE which will not want anything to disrupt the COP28 climate change conference that begins in Dubai on November 30. A feature of the Saudi coverage of the attack on Israel has been to frame Hamas squarely as part of an extremist camp set against those in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, who seek a peaceful solution to crises. The drawing of narrative lines, along with renewed emphasis on the Arab Peace Initiative as a practical basis for moving forward, will likely become more pronounced as Israel proceeds with its retaliatory response.

Images of death and destruction in Gaza may also enrage opinion among a regional public that remains largely unconvinced of the benefits of normalization, especially if they are accompanied by inflammatory statements by members of the Israeli government. The 2022 Arab Opinion Index—conducted by the Doha, Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies— surveyed over 33,000 people across fourteen countries and found that 76 percent of respondents agreed that the Palestinian cause concerned all Arabs and 84 percent would disapprove of their own country’s recognition of Israel. It is less than a year since the 2022 FIFA men’s World Cup in Qatar presented a highly visible reminder that Palestine retains a mobilizational appeal that surpasses virtually every other issue in the Arab world. It has been difficult enough for the Emirati leadership to engage directly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the three years since the Abraham Accords were signed, and developments in Gaza likely will make it harder still to do so.

Signaling in Preparation for Future Developments

Much of the signaling in Saudi statements and in activities such as the participation of Israel’s minister of tourism, Haim Katz, in a United Nations-organized conference in Riyadh on September 26 is about normalizing normalization. The setting of expectations that it will happen, sooner or later, and that when it does it will be greeted as little more than the formalization of a barely concealed status quo—as was the case for the UAE and Israel in 2020—rather than a seismic change in course with a potentially disruptive impact. This process may be less affected by any fallout from the October 7 surprise attack by Hamas, especially if it enables the Saudi leadership to regain the initiative in determining the timing and the manner of any next move. It could be months, or more probably years, before Mohammed bin Salman assesses that it is in his interest to play a card he can only use once—i.e., normalizing relations with Israel—and a dampening of US-centric speculation about ‘the deal’ may be no bad thing.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.