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MBS’ open talk signals advance toward peace with Israel
Normalization talks between Riyadh and Jerusalem have increased momentum, but anyone hoping for a big Abraham Accords-style announcement may end up disappointed, analysts say
The U.S., Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced the Abraham Accords in August 2020, after months of quiet diplomacy. Three years later, American and Israeli officials are again working toward a groundbreaking normalization agreement with an Arab country — Saudi Arabia — but this time, all parties have been more public about their efforts.
When asked about talks with the Saudis in recent months, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has paraphrased former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s “open covenants of peace openly arrived at.” Rather than conducting diplomacy “in the public view,” as Wilson put it in his Fourteen Points more than a century ago, Netanyahu has repeatedly said he is seeking “open covenants secretly, or at least discreetly, arrived at.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made his most open and optimistic comments to date about the prospects of establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, telling Fox News last month that “every day we get closer” to what would potentially be “the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War.”
Less surprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said days later that he was “delighted” by MBS’ remarks and at the United Nations General Assembly last month, said “we are at the cusp of…an historic peace with Saudi Arabia. Such a peace will go a long way to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict…Peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia will truly create a new Middle East.”
Another turning point came when Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz became the first member of the Jewish state’s cabinet to openly visit Saudi Arabia last week, attending a United Nations World Tourism Organization conference. Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi and Knesset Economics Committee Chairman David Bitan traveled to Riyadh on Monday.
Katz’s visit came only two weeks after Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Education Minister Yoav Kisch were barred from attending a UNESCO conference in the kingdom, apparently marking a change in policy.
“I don’t know the bottom line, why they approved me,” Katz told Israel’s Channel 14 on Tuesday. “We have been working on this for three weeks, and only a few days ago did we understand that it’s happening. We received official messages from the highest levels.”
IDF Brig.-Gen. (res.) Amir Avivi, founder and chairman of the largest Israeli NGO of national security veterans, the Israel Defense and Security Forum, and a Netanyahu ally, pointed out that the prime minister has been talking about the potential for normalization with Saudi Arabia for years and even, to some extent, campaigned on it before last year’s Knesset election, but was not able to make headway because of the Biden administration’s hesitation.
“I think there was a challenge on the American side to get over the problems of the past with Saudi Arabia, as we saw in the beginning of Biden’s term following [the killing of U.S.-based Saudi columnist Jamal] Khashoggi. It took the Americans a long time to get past it and understand the key to change is in this agreement. The minute they understood, that was the minute that Netanyahu, MBS and Biden tried to make this public,” he said.
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, called that period “a massive blunder on the part of the Biden administration. They had the Saudis on the two-yard line back in the early days of this administration, but because of anti-Saudi animus and a total unwillingness to credit the Trump administration with any progress on any front, they postponed the entire thing.”
Only after Saudi Arabia entered a China-brokered agreement with Iran did the administration “decide it needs to prioritize what should have been a priority from the jump,” Schanzer said.
Now, the Biden administration is in a rush to complete a deal before entering a presidential election year, Schanzer explained, and the recent gain in momentum as indicated by MBS’ interview and Netanayhu’s speech to the U.N. could be connected to that timeline.
Professor Bernard Haykel, director of Princeton University’s Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East said that allowing Israeli cabinet ministers into Saudi Arabia is “a sign of goodwill because they’re negotiating. I don’t think it’s much more than that,” he said.
“The reason it has become much more intense lately is because the Biden administration is determined to do this. That’s where the impetus is coming from,” he said.
That Katz was in Riyadh this week is “no coincidence,” Avivi posited. “There is a process of preparing Saudi public opinion and opinion in the Middle East broadly, ahead of the announcement.
“They are normalizing the public’s understanding,” he quipped.
Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel and a former official in Israel’s National Security Council, similarly noted that Katz’s visit to Riyadh came after MBS spoke publicly about normalization talks, which “gave it legitimacy in the kingdom and abroad, making it easier for Saudis to go with it.”
Guzansky said that “there is really an indication that things are warming up.”
He contrasted the current process with the Abraham Accords, “where suddenly there was an agreement announced.”
“Here it’s being done more or less openly, though we don’t know what is happening in the talks,” he said.
Guzansky also warned that the openness of the Saudi-Israel normalization discussion can invite “spoilers,” whether within the kingdom, in Iran or even in Israel, with the political right arguing against possible concessions to the Palestinians and Opposition Leader Yair Lapid expressing concern about a Saudi nuclear program.
Avivi argued that the Biden administration wants Palestinian involvement more than the Saudis do, – a thesis supported by reports that the Saudis are willing to enter a deal for a defense pact with the U.S. even if Israel does not make many concessions for the Palestinians, and all the Biden administration is asking from Israel is that it keep a future two-state solution viable.
By speaking openly about the talks and allowing a minister to visit Israel, the kingdom is sending “a message to the Americans that they won’t let the Palestinians get in the way. The Saudis are running forward because this is a strategic interest of the highest degree,” Avivi said.
Schanzer pointed out that contacts between Saudi Arabia and Israel in the areas of security, intelligence, technology and more have been known for years, so “it doesn’t really matter when an agreement is signed, so long as the process of normalization continues to grow, and I think it already is,” Schanzer said.
For Schanzer, advancing along a “road map,” as he said one Saudi interlocutor described it, is more important than a signing ceremony.
“Normalization is a process, not an event,” he emphasized.
In fact, Schanzer added, there may not be a formal agreement or a White House ceremony at all, because security guarantees or allowing Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium might not get the necessary approval in Congress, and the governing coalition in Israel may not be willing to make compromises on the Palestinian front.
Speaking from Riyadh, Haykel also posited that a peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia will happen “phase by phase,” and not be implemented all at once like the Abraham Accords.
“We’re far from an agreement. I’m not sure an agreement will actually materialize,” he said.
Haykel also criticized Israel for its frequent open discussion of normalization talks with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.
“Israelis have historically, with all Arabs, been incredibly embarrassing and deeply undiplomatic and insensitive to Arab sensibilities. They don’t care if they embarrass their negotiating partners,” he said.
While most Saudis would not oppose normalization with Israel, the leaders have concerns about security, Haykel said.
While Israeli Muslim pilgrims will not have a problem visiting Mecca, Haykel said: “I don’t think Saudi Arabia will be open to Israeli tourists anytime soon…largely for their own protection. They don’t want an incident here with Israelis where someone gets hurt because of some lunatic.”
The Saudi leadership is also concerned about their own safety following normalization with Israel.
“Netanyahu won’t get a bullet in his head for making peace with Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi leadership is at risk because there are violent people here,” Haykel said.
MBS is still proceeding with the negotiations, because “it’s in [the Saudi] national interest,” Haykel added, noting that nationalism has played an increasingly large role in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy under MBS’ leadership.