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Saudi Insights

Is Israel-Saudi normalization on the horizon? This Israeli journalist says not yet

Efrat Lachter, Israel’s first female foreign war correspondent, visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last week and heard firsthand how peace with Palestinians must come before normalization with the Jewish state

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Efrat Lachter in Saudi Arabia

Efrat Lachter is not the first Israeli journalist to report from Saudi Arabia, but she is one of the first to take a deep and analytical dive into the rapid modernization taking place in the region’s most conservative nation and to share that story – and the voices of ordinary Saudis – with millions of Israelis for the Jewish state’s highest-rated TV news show.

Lachter, 36, is an investigative correspondent for Channel 12 News, and as Israel’s first female war correspondent has garnered quite a reputation for her indefatigable reporting from inside war zones. Her reports have reached Israeli living rooms from inside Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, as well as from the streets of Moscow but also from places that are far more hostile to her home country, such as Sudan and Syria.

“As you know, I have some mileage traveling in the area and I always wanted to go to Saudi Arabia,” Lachter, who will head with her family to the U.S. next month after being awarded a prestigious Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan, told Jewish Insider in an interview last week.

“I had been planning to go to Saudi Arabia last year when [President Joe] Biden visited [after his trip to Israel], but it didn’t work out,” explained Lachter, who got her start working for investigative show “Uvda” (Hebrew for fact) 13 years ago and has worked for Channel 12 News for nine years. “I really wanted to go because of all the changes that are taking place there; it was really fascinating to me that there is a place that is changing so fast but without a civil war and without bloodshed.”

“Something that I learned from my work is that when you get to a place it’s always very different than what you heard it’s going to be,” Lachter emphasized. 

“It is such a huge revolution, and it is so well-planned,” she commented. “And I really wanted to know what the people there are thinking because, in a place where the press is not free, you can’t always tell what the ordinary people are thinking – you only hear the voice of the government, especially from the outside.”

Lachter cites her experiences during reporting trips to Ukraine and particularly to Russia, where she found the inside story to be quite different from what was being broadcast publicly in the Western media.

“Something that I learned from my work is that when you get to a place it’s always very different than what you heard it’s going to be,” she emphasized.  

With that in mind, Lachter said that one of her main driving factors was to explore recent headlines suggesting that Saudi Arabia is on the brink of normalizing relations with Israel. While President Joe Biden said any deal is “a little way off” in a recent CNN interview, Lachter noted that there is a feeling in Israel that “normalization with Saudi Arabia is just around the corner.”

“There is a feeling [in Israel] that it might really happen, that it’s a real possibility and I thought, OK, is that what they’re saying in Saudi also? Are Saudis really feeling that they are going to have normalization with us?” said Lachter, who traveled there with Israeli cinematographer Gil Somekh. The two received official accreditation from the Saudis to cover an international food festival taking place in Riyadh – an unusual recognition from a country that until recently has been unwilling to publicly accommodate Israelis.

“When we started talking to them about Palestine, many people gave us an interesting answer – and one that is quite different from our enemies such as Iran. Most said they do not have a specific problem with Israel itself and they felt that it was OK for Israel to exist,” Lachter said.

While the birthplace of Islam has slowly opened its doors to Israelis – just last week a team of Israeli gamers competed, flags and all, at the FIFA esport soccer championships – Lachter said that talking to ordinary Saudis during her four days in the capital, her observation was that in their eyes the normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel is still very far off.

“I understood that the Palestinian sentiment is very, very strong,” she told JI, highlighting that in a number of her conversations on the ground, she did not feel comfortable saying that she was from Israel.

“I didn’t feel like it was something that I could share with everyone, even though the Saudis were very open, very pragmatic and very welcoming,” Lachter described. 

“When we started talking to them about Palestine, many people gave us an interesting answer – and one that is quite different from our enemies such as Iran. Most said they do not have a specific problem with Israel itself and they felt that it was OK for Israel to exist,” Lachter continued. “Some even said they wouldn’t mind having relations with Israel in the future but that it is not something they are willing to talk about before the Palestinians get a country. They say Palestinians first.”

Lachter pointed out that the sentiment is one also expressed by the country’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but observed that the “additional part – about Palestinians – always gets left out of the headlines in Israel.”

In her report for Israeli television, which aired last Sunday evening, Lachter spoke to Aziz Alghashian, a fellow at Project Sepad, a think tank at the University of Lancaster in the U.K., who researches Saudi foreign policy on Israel.

Alghashian agreed with Lachter’s analysis of the situation, telling Israeli television: “I wouldn’t hold my breath, [normalization] will be very much predicated on significant concessions towards the Palestinian issue, which is something that people have overlooked the Saudi-Palestinian connection.”

“We want this so much more than the other side,” observed Lachter, explaining why the messaging in Israel, and the U.S., has appeared to contradict Alghashian’s analysis and her own experiences.

“We like to feel part of the neighborhood, we want to feel like we’re doing something good, we want to feel like everybody wants to be in relations with us, we are the startup nation, we want to be important, and feel that people need us,” she said. “I really think it is based on wishful thinking and what politicians are telling us.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who together with former President Donald Trump’s administration brokered the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, has made it clear that normalizing ties with Saudi Arabia is among his top priorities. Lachter noted that Netanyahu, who has lately received a cold shoulder from his Abraham Accords partners as he heads one of the country’s most extreme right-wing governments, missed out on the glory of the agreements after being ousted from office in June 2021, less than a year after the Accords were signed in Washington.

“It’s very important for him, he wants to push it forward because it’s a good thing for him to show,” she theorized. “We have so much instability and so many local problems, but if he does this, he can say, ‘Look, I’m doing so many amazing and great things abroad, this is what you should be looking at.’”

Lachter also draws on her knowledge of the conflict in Ukraine, pointing out that ties between the Biden administration and Saudi Arabia have warmed, despite a hostile start, as the West seeks alternative energy sources to Russia. Normalization, she said “would also be a big achievement for Biden before the election, and he has all the reasons to want this to happen too.”

Still, after her short foray in the country and her discussions with locals, Lachter said she realized that it is impossible for the Saudis to overlook or bypass the rights or status of the Palestinian people. She highlighted recent statements by Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., who last month indicated that though her country was not anti-normalization, the behavior of the current Israeli government in the West Bank was “extremely harmful.”

The second part of Al Saud’s comments said Lachter, “was kind of ignored in Israel.”

“It was amazing to hear how she talked about Israel, but we can’t ignore that she wants to see a Palestinian state,” the Israeli journalist concluded. “That was also the feeling that I got from my visit to Saudi Arabia too.”

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