What’s the price for normalization with Riyadh?


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Sunday that “we will one day be able to have railways connect Saudi Arabia and Israel,” just hours after a New York Times piece suggested that the kingdom was expecting the Jewish state to make significant concessions to the Palestinians as a precondition for normalization. 

While the train to normalization has — in words attributed to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — “left the station,” the tracks pass through Washington.

The Biden administration has been trying for months to have normalization linked to a breakthrough with the Palestinians, and that explains why the New York Times (the president’s preferred outlet) ran that piece. Essentially, in order to get Riyadh, Netanyahu will have to please Ramallah, the article said. But Jerusalem officials have been rejecting this idea, and the conventional wisdom is that the royal palace in Saudi Arabia has also rejected it. 

But bin Salman, who has unchallenged power in the kingdom, has on more than one occasion lashed out at the Palestinians. Speaking of trains, he once told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that the “normalization train has left the station; it’s up to you if you want to get on board.”

In other words, Riyadh is no longer willing to give Ramallah a veto on the thawing of relations with Israel — for itself or for the Gulf in particular. That is why bin Salman agreed to have the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain sign the Abraham Accords with Israel, and has himself promoted ties with Israel unofficially. 

According to one senior Israeli official, the current relationship with Riyadh amounts to “semi-normalization.” For Israel, it would not be worth it to pay in Palestinian currency just so they could be completed and become public, as this would be a dangerous transaction. This has been Netanyahu’s long-held view. Selling the farm in exchange for worthless documents signed with the Palestinians is something that he could have done long ago.

In other words, as far as Israel is concerned, peace with Saudi Arabia should be the culmination of a much different form of negotiations.

The Saudis recently presented their demands for bolstering ties with the United States, and they include far-reaching demands on economic, scientific and security matters. The Americans have a vested interest in such a deal to check Chinese inroads in the region, and of course to ensure that they don’t lose a critical ally like Saudi Arabia. Normalization with Israel, they believe, will be a byproduct of such a large deal between Washington and Riyadh.

A senior Israeli official told Israel Hayom that “Netanyahu will not change his longstanding and principled stance on the Palestinian issue” for the sake of normalization with Saudi Arabia.”

According to the official, progress with the Palestinians is a consideration that the Saudis are demanding, “but the issue is not a high priority for them.”

“The two nations have already been maintaining unofficial ties, so for Israel there is no reason to take steps that could put it under threat in Judea and Samaria for things that already exist to a large extent,” the official said.

[Over the weekend, it was reported that the prevailing view within the kingdom is that Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners are against normalization. Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi researcher specializing in Israeli matters at Project SEPAD (the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation project), a British-based think tank, said, “I believe that the internal situation in Israel is not conducive to normalization with Saudi Arabia.”

[Meanwhile, it was reported that the head of Mossad  secretly traveled to Washington two weeks ago to discuss a deal with Saudi Arabia, and that US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan traveled to Jeddah last week to discuss with bin Salman and senior Saudi officials the possibility of the kingdom joining the Abraham Accords.]

Internal US politics is very much part of this story. The conventional wisdom in Israel is that Biden will have to decide by December whether he is all-in on such a deal. After that, the presidential campaign will be in full swing. Moreover, a full-fledged treaty with Saudi Arabia will require two-thirds Senate approval. The administration is wary that the GOP is unlikely to give Biden such a historic accomplishment.

The normalization train may have left the station, but it is now on stopover in Washington.