In recent weeks, Saudi officials made statements that were interpreted in Israel as a change of attitude in Saudi Arabia towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to Israeli Channel 10, the Saudi crown prince told Jewish leaders in the United States that “the time has come for the Palestinians to accept the proposals and agree to come to the negotiation table or shut up and stop complaining”. In addition, he was quoted as saying that “there are much more urgent and far more important issues to deal with – like Iran”. This statement follows a previous interview with Jeffrey Goldberg from The Atlantic, in which he was quoted saying, “the Jewish people have a right to a state, alongside the right of the Palestinians to a state.”
These statements by a Saudi senior official seem to fit with the political approach that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been promoting in recent years. According to this position, the new reality in the Middle East allows for the belief that Israel and the Arab states can strengthen ties because they realize their common ground overrides their differences. For example, in his speech at the United Nations in 2016, Netanyahu claimed, “many other states in the region recognize that Israel is not their enemy. They recognize that Israel is their ally. Our common enemies are Iran and ISIS. Our common goals are security, prosperity, and peace”.
Judging from the history of Israel’s relations with Arab states, Netanyahu’s perception does not seem realistic: In 1979, without including the Palestinians in the agreement, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat would not have agreed to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Similarly, the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan was signed only after the Oslo Accords, which radically changed Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. Until then, signing a peace agreement was not possible, even after the Jordanian king relinquished his demand for the West Bank at the end of the 1980s, and with seemingly no fundamental disagreement between him and the Israeli leadership, with whom he maintained good informal relations.
However, Netanyahu believes that a new reality has been created, and that even without negotiating with the Palestinians it is possible to normalize relations with the Arab world. It is the “new terror” that makes it possible. The threat of Islamic extremism to the Muslim world encourages the Arab leadership to ally with Israel. In his view, even in the absence of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it is possible to improve Israel’s relations with other Arab countries.
Netanyahu’s belief in the transformation of the Arab world has led him to change his attitude toward the Arab League initiative. Netanyahu, who once claimed that “in its current format [it is] dangerous to the State of Israel”, claimed in 2016, “Israel welcomes the spirit of the Arab peace initiative”. The new Netanyahu ignores the central component of the Arab League initiative: the need for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement prior to normalizing relations with Israel. When the “Palestinian component” is left out of the equation, Netanyahu can indeed welcome the initiative. He also believes that strengthening Israel’s relations with the Arab states can lead to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. However, the Arab League still believes in the reversed process whereby the Israeli-Palestinian agreement precedes improving the relations with the Arab world. Likewise, the reports about the recent declarations of the Saudi Prince mentioned that he once again stated that “there needs to be significant progress toward an agreement with the Palestinians before it will be possible to advance negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Arab world and Israel.”
Netanyahu’s discourse is captivating and raises very few objections in Israel. Since 2000, most of the Israeli public believes like there is no Palestinian partner to negotiate with. If there is no Palestinian partner and if relations with the Arab world can be strengthened even without negotiations with the Palestinians, there is no reason to oppose Netanyahu’s assertion. His coalition partners from the Israeli political right are happy to promote peace with the Arab world without having to pay any price. Netanyahu’s political rivals on the political left show no objection either: some share the view that there is no Palestinian partner, and even those who believe that there is a partner for an agreement find it difficult to oppose the opportunity to strengthen ties with other Arab countries.
But even Netanyahu admitted in the past that a genuine and formal relationship between Israel and the Arab world cannot be expected without an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. According to himself, “in order to fully achieve this broad peace agreement, the Palestinians must be part of it”. Indeed, there is no evidence that the hope for substantial and meaningful relations between Israel and the Arab world can occur without progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. It is no surprise, therefore, that in February of this year, when Netanyahu mentioned again the strengthening of relations with the Arab world at the defense conference in Munich, it was reported that the Secretary-General of the Arab League tweeted in response, “there will be no peace with the Arab world before achieving peace with the Palestinians.”
Dr. Yuval Benziman teaches conflict resolution at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a task-team member at the Mitvim Institute. This article is based on a research paper written as part of the Mitvim Institute’s project on “Israel’s relations with Arab states: The unfulfilled potential.”