Earlier this month, a diplomatic source revealed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had engaged in two phone conversations with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) within a span of a few weeks. This comes after a clandestine meeting in November 2020, when Netanyahu, accompanied by Yossi Cohen, the former head of Mossad, held talks with MBS in Nayom, Saudi Arabia. The meeting was also in the presence of then-United States secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
Earlier this month, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stated that achieving a complete normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia is their primary objective, as it aligns with the national security interests of the US.
This statement stands out as a relatively uncommon remark from the Biden administration, which has not extensively addressed this matter thus far. Furthermore, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post earlier this month, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen expressed the belief that normalization with Saudi Arabia is not a matter of “if” but rather “when.”
This convergence of perspectives suggests that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US currently have a brief and uncommon window of opportunity wherein all three major actors share an interest in reaching a normalization agreement.
An agreement would allow Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear power
Paradoxically, a normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran could actually expedite and support the normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia recognizes that forging ties with Israel carries the risk of Iranian aggression and heightened regional security escalation. It can be assumed that Riyadh’s calculations regarding normalization with Iran also revolved around the potential for a future political agreement with Israel.
The aim in Riyadh was to persuade Tehran to enter into an official agreement that would protect against military aggression in the event of normalization with Israel, or at least mitigate the security escalation that may follow such an agreement. Thus, the path from Riyadh to Jerusalem goes through Tehran.
Iran’s pursuit of a military nuclear weapon and its aggressive actions in the region may also serve as catalysts for a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In February, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran had enriched uranium to 84%, approaching the threshold for military-grade enrichment (90%).Last May, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant stated that Iran had accumulated enough 20% and 60% enriched material to produce five nuclear bombs.
Amid the absence of official negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and considering Iran’s military involvement in support of Russia in the Ukraine conflict (to the dissatisfaction of European countries), Iran’s race towards acquiring a military nuclear weapon takes on heightened significance in the near future. Saudi Arabia recognizes that Jerusalem is the only entity capable of halting Iran’s pursuit of such a weapon.
A normalization agreement with Israel would bolster Saudi Arabia’s position in Washington and enhance its relationship with the Biden administration. Additionally, as an unofficial component of the agreement, Israel could assist Saudi Arabia in Washington’s corridors, advocating for the Saudi cause and strengthening MBS’s standing with the Senate and Congress, particularly among hesitant Democratic elements who have reservations following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government.
According to reports in the international media, some of the conditions set by Saudi Arabia for a normalization agreement with Israel primarily pertain to its expectations from the US. These demands encompass a defense pact with the US, the provision of security guarantees (mainly against Iran), arms deals for advanced American weaponry, and a nuclear agreement that would enable Saudi Arabia to acquire and develop civilian nuclear power.
US seeks to rebalance power dynamics in Middle East
The Biden administration is strongly motivated to achieve a significant foreign relations breakthrough ahead of the upcoming presidential elections in November 2024, which is approximately a year and a half away.
The hasty and unsuccessful withdrawal from Afghanistan in May 2021, resulting in the complete takeover by the Taliban; Russia’s bold invasion of Ukraine; tensions in Taiwan; escalating conflicts between North Korea, South Korea, and Japan; and China’s increasing involvement in global power dynamics, all of these factors, necessitate the Biden administration’s presentation of a notable political achievement to the electorate.
Furthermore, Washington seeks to restore its relationship with Saudi Arabia, aiming to rebalance the power dynamics in the Persian Gulf in favor of the US (even if the US does not intend to invest in the Middle East as extensively as before), as part of the broader competition against China.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has drawn closer to China and Russia, signing a series of strategic agreements with them. Additionally, the United States has an interest in establishing an oil price coordination mechanism with Saudi Arabia to help lower price levels both domestically and globally.
Israel aims to achieve stability
A historic normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia will lead to the end of the conflict between Israel and the Arab people officially, since Saudi Arabia is considered the leader of the Arab world, due to its wealth, the most important places for Sunni Islam located there, and its inter-Arab, regional and international status. The normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia will probably lead to its side, followed by additional political agreements with Arab and Muslim countries.
Most important of all, the agreement will be a death blow to the Palestinian issue and will significantly reduce its influence and consequences on Israel in the inter-Arab and international arena (even if Israel is forced to give another diplomatic statement related to the Palestinians).
In addition, the agreement will have enormous economic consequences for Israel, due to the possibility of Saudi investments, especially in the fields of commerce, technology, and military industry, and in infrastructure and transportation projects that will lead to better connections and access between Saudi Arabia and Israel, by sea and land.
In order to reach an agreement with Saudi Arabia in the near future, Israel must implement a number of steps to satisfy the Saudis and the Americans. The common aim of these steps is to achieve stability.
First, Israel will be forced to continue to limit itself when it comes to military operations in Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip. This means that Israel will probably not soon initiate military operations in Jenin or Nablus to cleanse the nests of terrorism in these places, and will continue to carry out surgical, spot-on and continuous military operations on a daily basis to thwart terrorism from these areas. Israel will be forced to slow down in the Gaza Strip, as well.
At the political level, Israel is required to curb its policy in the area of construction in settlements and to avoid making extreme statements and provocations by government ministers in the Palestinian context.
On top of that, Israel will have to continue trying to stabilize its internal and political arena. This means reaching as broad an agreement as possible regarding the legal reform, and perhaps even delaying it at least until a breakthrough is reached for an agreement with Saudi Arabia. This requirement is apparently essential for the Americans, but it is likely also important for Saudi Arabia, which wishes to see Israel stable in the face of the Iranian threat.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have an opportunity for normalization
The convergence of interests among the various stakeholders, the urgency of the timeline and the rare opportunity that is at hand increase the likelihood of an Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement within the next year. As a preliminary step toward normalization, there might be an effort to establish agreements for direct flights from Israel to Jeddah, enabling Israeli Arabs to participate in the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
Such understandings could serve as the foundation to further strengthen the existing framework of Israeli flights passing over Saudi Arabian territory and pave the way for a comprehensive agreement in the future.
Additionally, Saudi Arabia may prefer to see Israel first sign political agreements with other Arab and Muslim countries before joining the Abraham Accords. This would allow Saudi Arabia to give its approval or blessing to those countries, serving as a political achievement for the US, even if it does not constitute a direct agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia at present.
The writer has a Ph.D. in political studies. He is a military strategy and national security expert, and a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and at the Israel Defense and Security Forum (Habithonistim).