The Road not Taken with Saudi Arabia Is Bigger Than Normalization

Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

The intense diplomatic activity on the Washington-Riyadh axis, as well as statements by top officials on both sides, indicate that an Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement is still relevant despite the Gaza war and its ramifications. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and various members of his government have made clear their strong opposition to the Saudi demands linking normalization to a ceasefire (which includes a hostage deal), Gaza’s administration by a non-military mechanism, and, most crucially, Israeli agreement to a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. Israeli rejection of this historic opening would constitute yet another missed opportunity for the Jewish State to make peace with the Arab world’s leading power.

Israel has missed quite a few opportunities over the years for normalization with the Arabs, in general, and Saudi Arabia, in particular. Those who hark back to the saying coined by Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” should revisit the history books.

The first missed opportunity with the Saudis dates back to December 1977, when Crown Prince Fahd sent an emissary to Israel with a verbal message for Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan. Dayan refused to meet him without knowing the content of the message in advance, and the messenger went home. In August 1981, Fahd proposed an initiative, which Israel scornfully rejected. In February 2002, Israel simply disregarded another Saudi outreach, this one by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, whereas the Arab League adopted it. The Arab Peace Initiative, as it came to be known, was particularly significant because it reflected broad consensus on recognition of Israel within the 1967 borders, and the establishment of diplomatic relations, in return for Israeli acceptance of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel resisted the plan’s terms not only on political and ideological grounds, but also out of ignorance regarding Saudi Arabia’s importance in the Arab and Islamic world and a perception of its leadership as corrupt and religiously extreme. Had the Arab Peace Initiative been presented to Israel at earlier stages of the conflict, the leadership would likely have seen it as an acceptable basis for negotiations and an agreement. But the process of radicalization underway within Israel’s Jewish society with regard to the occupied territories prompted repeated efforts to circumvent the Palestinian problem. The 2020 normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco ostensibly signalled the ultimate justification of these efforts, but the event of Oct. 7 and its aftermath refute the claim that the Palestinian problem could be ignored.

Hamas’s murderous offensive and the ensuing war also created a unique opportunity, as do many wars that result in systemic overhauls. Such was the case with the 1973 Arab-Israeli war that ultimately led to peace with Egypt. Exactly 50 years on, Israel is steadfastly refusing to take advantage of this cataclysm to initiate or accept plans for the day after the Gaza war, in keeping with its historic pattern. It has never initiated a peace plan – the one with Egypt was proposed by President Anwar Sadat.

Normalization with Saudi Arabia is in itself politically and economically important, but its many regional and international ramifications are even more so. First, it will open the door to recognition by other countries in the Middle East and the Islamic world. Second, it will deliver a blow to the Iranian “resistance” axis, which aspires to undermine Muslim normalization with Israel. Third, it will anchor the process of Israel’s integration into the regional and global security architecture, with its benefits as evidenced by the coalition mounted to foil Iran’s April 2024 missile attack on Israel.

Fourth, it will take the sting out of at least some resistance to Israel in the world and in the region by those who oppose its policies but not its existence, thereby stopping its descent into pariahhood. Fifth, it will strengthen Israel’s economic ties with countries in the region, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Trade between Israel and the UAE in 2023 soared to almost $3 billion and would have surpassed that figure had it not been for the war. And finally, normalization with the Saudis would result in Israel’s integration into the new economic architecture linking the Far East and India to Europe via Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel through a sea and land corridor.

The Saudis have been successful in their efforts to moderate the Arab response to Israel’s war in Gaza, as reflected in the May 16 Arab League summit in Bahrain, with the participation of almost all the kings and presidents of Arab countries, including Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. While denouncing Israel’s actions in Gaza and calling for an end to the war and the deployment of international forces there, the joint concluding statement also called for an international conference and expressed support for the two-state solution based on the Arab Peace Initiative. In other words, the war has not changed the strategic Arab adherence to the two-state solution.

Many in Israel view the establishment of a Palestinian state as a security threat, a logical concern especially after October 7. However, it is precisely this catastrophe that makes a Palestinian state inevitable, sooner or later, for the following three reasons. First, it restored the Palestinian problem to its “natural” place at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, thwarting attempts to marginalize or eliminate it through normalization with Arab countries on the periphery of the Middle East. Second, the disaster has prompted renewed discourse on the two-state solution, which had seemed irrelevant before October 7 due to the massive increase in settlements throughout Area C of the West Bank. The idea of “one state” gained traction in many circles, but the Hamas massacre demonstrated that separation is nevertheless the only viable option, whereas one state is a recipe for calamity.

Third, international and Arab actors understand that they must be part of the solution by providing guarantees to both sides, including perhaps by sending peacekeeping forces to Gaza. Foreign involvement does not mean that Israel entrusts its security to others, but rather that regional and international partners have an interest in offering and preserving solutions to the conflict.

The negative consequences of Israel’s refusal are already manifest. The announced recognition of a Palestinian state by Ireland, Norway and Spain signals the beginning of a political tsunami that will lead to recognition by other countries, in addition to the 140 that have already sone so over the years. This worldwide recognition of a Palestinian state would also further exacerbate international rejection of Israel’s rule over a foreign people. Instead of Israel eventually having to bend under international pressure, it could benefit right now through Saudi recognition and normalization, which would include a solution to the Palestinian problem.

The realization of this grandiose plan requires a fateful decision of the kind adopted 77 years ago by David Ben-Gurion. But Netanyahu is no Ben-Gurion, and despite the backing of a Knesset majority, lacks public legitimacy following the October 7 disaster, for which he and his government are responsible. Just as troubling, the Palestinian leadership also lacks public legitimacy, being perceived as corrupt and unfit to make fateful decisions. Reflecting its low standing, Palestinian polls demonstrate wide support for Hamas, especially following Oct. 7, and little backing for the two-state solution. In other words, the Palestinians, just like the Israelis, need to undergo a process of disillusionment – in Israel’s case with the limits of power, in the Palestinian case with the limits of ambition.

The current circumstances would seem to quash prospects of a two-state solution in the foreseeable future. However, should an Israeli government take the leap and accept the “Saudi move”, and the Palestinians would then reject it, for whatever reason, the Saudis would likely regard this as a sufficiently big fig leaf to move forward with their plan. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is clearly fed up with the Palestinians. In March 2018, he told American Jewish leaders that the Palestinian leadership had missed opportunities and rejected all the offers it was given over the past 40 years. “It is about time the Palestinians take the proposals and agree to come to the negotiation table or shut up and stop complaining,” he reportedly told the closed-door meeting.

Prospects of normalization with Saudi Arabia following the events of October 7 place Israel at a crossroads. It can either continue to adhere to its historic role as a victim persecuted throughout history and to this very day, or seize the opportunity as a powerful independent nation to break out of its ghetto into the region as a partner and ally. Either decision is down to Israel’s leaders and society, not a deus ex machina.

The article was published on June 1st at Haaretz. 

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