Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States believed in a peace agreement in the Middle East. Now, the cards have been reshuffled.
More than two weeks ago, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood in the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York and spoke of a dramatic breakthrough close at hand. At that time, he was not referring to the terrorists of Hamas who broke through the Gaza border fence to Israel on Saturday morning. Back then, Netanyahu was talking about the great peace that he imagined, not the war that he got. In his view, a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia was close at hand, a treaty acknowledging the Jewish state by the guardians of the holy places of Islam.
The potential deal was celebrated in advance as a “breakthrough of the century,” a “tectonic shift” and a “new age of peace.” Netanyahu did not speak in hypotheticals either: “Such a peace will go a long way to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. It will encourage other Arab states to normalize relations with Israel.”
The Initiative Is Coming from the United States
Just two weeks later, the old normal has returned with great brutality. Israel finds itself at war with the terrorists of Hamas who murdered civilians and advanced on Israeli territory. It’s being called the worst attack on Israel in the history of the country. In the face of the shock and all of the dead, no one is talking about the peace with Saudi Arabia that was supposedly in reach. The momentum seems to be lost for now.
“Everyday we get closer,” said Saudia Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman two weeks ago — still hopeful. White House National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan romanticized a few days later about how calm the Middle East had become, how rosy the prospects of peace were.
The rapprochement was astonishing even then, but it was primarily conceived from the end. Many details still remained completely open. The initiative came from the United States, which does not want to lose its influence in the Middle East to China; for the not particularly popular President Joe Biden, a deal would be a pleasant message for the presidential election in 2024. However, much is still unknown regarding the envisaged deal; much still needs to be negotiated.
Only 2% of Saudis Support Normalizing Relations with Israel
In principle, Saudi Arabia would receive guarantees of security from the United States, which would protect the kingdom in case of an attack from Iran. To this end, it would receive technology for building a civil nuclear program. Riyadh could form a joint alliance against Tehran; even a joint early warning system for aerial defense with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt would be conceivable. In return, Israel would likely have to at least stop the expansion of settlements in occupied regions and make further concessions to the Palestinians.
The war has stopped the rapprochement for now. In its reaction to the attacks from Hamas, Saudi Arabia* accused Israel of being “alone responsible for the current escalation due to this ongoing violations of the rights of the Palestinian people, the latest of which is the repeated raids on the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque under of the protection of Israeli police.” There is no more talk of the deal for now. Even in normal times, the peace agreement with Israel would be a daring undertaking; according to polls, only 2% of Saudis support normalizing relations with Israel.
“It was always a tough hill to climb, and that hill just got a lot steeper,” said Brian Katulis, vice president for policy at the Middle East Institute in Washington. The situation is not much different in Israel and the United States.
The Attacks Also in Iran’s Favor
After the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, President Biden had designated the crown prince as a “pariah.”** Now, that same man may be granted access to nuclear technology; for many Democrats in the Senate, things are moving too quickly. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu would have had a problem in the event of a deal because the right-wing extremists in his government would likely not be willing to make any concessions to the Palestinians.
Now, tough times have come. The intensity of the Israeli retribution strikes will also influence the possibility for peace in the region. “This kind of situation has made Saudi Arabia go back to its traditional role,” said Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi expert on Saudi-Israeli relations.
The kingdom has held Israel partly responsible for the outbreak of violence and will now dispel the impression that it prefers normalization at the expense of supporting the Palestinians. The kingdom had long made the two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis a condition for a peace agreement — to the young crown prince, his own interests then seemed more important than those of the Palestinians.
“Hamas’s actions send a clear reminder to the Saudis that the Palestinian issue should not be treated as just another subtopic in normalization negotiations,” says Rich LeBaron of the think tank Atlantic Council. The attacks are also at least in Iran’s favor, which also began a careful rapprochement with Saudi Arabia: Embassies were opened, niceties were exchanged. An agreement between the Saudis, Israel and the United States would leave Tehran on the outside, and would ultimately turn against Iran. On Saturday, hundreds of demonstrators met at Palestine Square; they celebrated and chanted “Death to Israel.”
*Editor’s Note: Although accurately translated, his statement was made by the Qatari Foreign Ministry.
**Editor’s Note: Although accurately translated, Biden said the kingdom, rather than the crown prince, should be made a “pariah” on the world stage because of Khashoggi’s murder.