The Saudi-Israeli Normalization Gambit: Deal or No Deal?

After weeks of conflicting accounts from columnists and journalists about the outcome of the Biden administration’s intensive shuttle diplomacy aimed at convincing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, the Saudi government decided on August 12, 2023, to go on the offensive, which is uncharacteristic of its usual quiet diplomatic modus operandi. The Saudi Foreign Ministry in Riyadh announced on X (formerly Twitter) that its ambassador to Jordan, Nayef al-Sudairi has been concurrently appointed as “ambassador extraordinary and non-resident to the State of Palestine and consul general in Jerusalem.” The post added that Ambassador al-Sudairi had submitted his diplomatic credentials to Dr. Majdi al-Khalidi, diplomatic affairs advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the Embassy of Palestine in Amman, Jordan.

This surprising move was corroborated a day later by the New York Times, and officially confirmed by Ambassador al-Sudairi, who expressed his personal gratitude to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his son, Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman, for the trust they had placed in him, indicating that his appointment “confers an institutional dimension to bilateral relations with the State of Palestine and brings about peace to the region.”

In its first report on this diplomatic undertaking, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) ironically highlighted the Palestinian Foreign Ministry’s welcoming of the Saudi decision referring to al-Sudairi’s appointment. In the remarkable absence of any specifically targeted Saudi media campaign to clarify the decision, which to date remains unexplained, the SPA resorted once again to quoting Palestinian diplomats praising Riyadh’s decision for reaffirming “the kingdom’s interest in the Palestinian cause,” and the “continuation of its historical stances in support of the Palestinian cause and the rights of the Palestinian people.” No official Saudi cabinet communiques were issued, no special interviews were granted by high-ranking officials, and no detailed Foreign Ministry statements were made in this regard.

Subsequently, Ambassador al-Sudairi, an experienced Saudi diplomat who served as his country’s ambassador to Canada between 2014 and 2018, admitted the precipitous nature of the event. He revealed that he has not received any further instructions about his appointment, but insisted that Saudi Arabia’s interest in the Palestine cause will assume more significant dimensions. Still, unlike the previous attempt by Saudi Arabia to normalize with Israel through the Arab Peace Initiative that was issued on March 28, 2002, the appointment of al-Sudairi was accompanied by few details. No immediate or thorough explanation from Riyadh followed, no Arab summit was convened, no linkage was made to the United Nations or to international law relevant to Palestine, and no explanation was provided regarding the rushed manner in which the appointment was implemented. Nor was justification given for the low-key venue chosen for Ambassador Sudairi’s submission of credentials or the absence of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas from what was deemed by many to be a historic diplomatic event. The Saudi ambassador’s credentials, according to Middle East Monitor, were to be handed to President Abbas “soon.”

The Saudi diplomatic gesture toward the Palestinians appears to have been the result of the Biden administration’s insistence.

Although it remains uncertain whether the Saudi step was coordinated with the Biden administration, the Benjamin Netanyahu government, or the Palestinian Authority, Riyadh has clearly opted to take a risky and quite ambitious diplomatic path considering the potential fallout at home and abroad. The kingdom was likely hoping that the element of surprise would bring about certain political advantages in its fitful negotiations with the United States—the principal target of its serious conditions and demands to accept the grand bargain of normalization with Israel. After all, the Saudi diplomatic gesture toward the Palestinians appears to have been, according to well-informed sources in Washington, the result of the Biden administration’s insistence more than any Saudi political factor, whether domestic, regional, or international in nature. Saudi Arabia cannot simply normalize relations with Israel without offering a fig leaf like elevating its relations with the State of Palestine to the ambassadorial level.

The Chaotic American Prelude to the Announcement

Since the beginning of 2023, President Joe Biden has been frequently expressing his political yearning for a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, elevating the issue to the top of his administration’s national security agenda in the region. Biden’s dogged pursuit of a Saudi-Israeli agreement essentially stems from his firm belief that such a diplomatic achievement would not only give him a strong winning hand in the 2024 presidential race, but would also neutralize vocal critics at home, particularly friends of Israel in Congress who are unhappy with his irresolute handling of Mohammed bin Salman, whom he once promised to hold accountable for the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and with the president’s allegedly losing Saudi Arabia to China. In addition, from Biden’s perspective, the rapprochement plan would most likely placate Israel and its American supporters by adding the kingdom as the ultimate prize on the list of Arab normalizers so far delivered to Israel—the main beneficiary of the whole process.

Yet, despite the president’s personal obsession with the issue, and regardless of his frequently dispatching key foreign policy and national security aides to the region—including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Special Assistant to the President Brett McGurk, and Special Presidential Coordinator for Global Infrastructure and Energy Security Amos Hochstein—the administration has not succeeded in recent months in articulating a cohesive policy to convince its two key allies in the region—Israel and Saudi Arabia—to reach a mutually acceptable normalization deal with the potential to win broad political support among their respective publics.

Deal or No Deal?: Contradictory Media Coverage

Since the inception of the Saudi-Israeli normalization pursuit, both US and global media coverage of relevant diplomatic efforts has reflected a climate of disarray and indecisiveness at the White House. On July 28, 2023, for example, President Biden personally bragged to a group of campaign contributors in Maine that “rapprochement” was under way, implying that Saudi-Israeli normalization is around the corner. The day before, Thomas L. Friedman wrote in his widely read column in the New York Times that President Biden, whom he had interviewed a week earlier, confirmed that he was “wrestling with whether to pursue the possibility of a US-Saudi mutual security pact that would involve Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel.”

Furthermore, US officials talking to the Wall Street Journal reportedly expressed cautious optimism that they will be able to reach a Middle East peace deal by mid-2024. The Journal reported that, “The US 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, US security guarantees and civilian nuclear help.” However, subsequent actions and developments have demonstrated this statement to be premature.

US and global media coverage of relevant diplomatic efforts has reflected a climate of disarray and indecisiveness at the White House.

Reporters at the Washington Post were significantly more sober in their interpretation of the impending agreement than their colleagues at the Wall Street Journal. Although they acknowledged that the parties are still “in the early stages of negotiations” toward an actual agreement, they wrote that “serious obstacles stand in the way of any prospective deal.” They even quoted a more reserved National Security Council spokesperson, John Kirby, who cautioned against reports that have “left some people with the impression that discussions are farther along…than they actually are.”

Columnist Jennifer Rubin, however, was more forceful in her critique of the overly optimistic assessment from the WSJ. In her August 13, 2023, column, Rubin asked her readers not to believe everything they read, “especially about the Middle East.” She specifically characterized the Wall Street Journal’s reporting on a potential US-Saudi-Israeli agreement as “not even close” to accurate. She argued that extensive diplomatic talks over the past few months “does not mean a deal is in the offing.”

Eventually, senior administration officials had to intervene to reduce expectations generated by this media frenzy and defend against charges of chaos and potential failure. Jake Sullivan briefed the media on August 22, that “there are still ways to travel” before reaching a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, confirming that “highly technical issues” remain unresolved. Nonetheless, the White House continued to adhere to its pre-2024 election deadline.

Will Israel Meet MBS’s Conditions?

It is quite doubtful that Israel will agree to the kingdom’s requests. Even though the Saudi announcement left no doubt about its conditional intention to recognize the State of Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the Saudi gesture was tepid at best, and as wavering as it has been throughout the US-led process. Senior members of the Likud-led coalition government, particularly its well-briefed inner circle, including Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer and National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi, have continued to dampen public expectations at home and abroad while also insisting that progress is still possible. As in previous attempts at bringing about Arab-Israeli peace, Netanyahu and his partners have insisted on having their cake and eating it too, the typical Likud strategy of wanting a deal without giving anything in return.

A former Israeli national security official told the National that significant challenges remain in sealing a deal. To add further confusion, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who is widely thought to be out of the loop on this issue, was more optimistic that an agreement is about to happen, explaining that Israel has “an interest in improving life in the areas of the Palestinian Authority.”

Although Benjamin Netanyahu has always pursued Saudi normalization, and even made it central to his election campaign last year, political turmoil in Israel over his judicial overhaul plans has undoubtedly deprived the government of the stability it needs at home to conclude its ongoing discussions with the Biden administration over the Saudis’ demands in return for a deal. Israel’s politically fragmented society has also made it virtually impossible for the prime minister to secure the national consensus needed to approve such a historic and monumental deal. Even though Netanyahu has long hoped for Saudi recognition, he might not have anticipated that Riyadh would demand such a steep price. Therefore, many political analysts in Israel doubted his ability or willingness to strike a deal with either President Biden or Mohammed bin Salman.

Ariel Cohen of the Atlantic Council, for example, expressed serious doubts about the prime minister’s willingness to pay a political price he deems too high to incur at this late point in his career, particularly if it requires the dismantling of his vulnerable and precarious coalition government. The deal-breaker, in other words, will most likely be the Palestine issue. Indeed, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich told Israel’s Army Radio on August 28, 2023, that the Netanyahu government “won’t make any concessions to the Palestinians, it’s a fiction.” Will Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly change his spots and surprise the world with his response, or will he remain forever stranded in his Zionist fiction? Only time will tell. But one thing is certain, the political plight of the Palestinians is apt to deteriorate as a result of the ongoing US-Saudi-Israel negotiations.

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.

Featured image credit: US DoS