Measured approach

Saudi Arabia more likely to take small steps to normalization, says Israeli historian

Professor Joshua Teitelbaum, who was recently appointed a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, tells Jewish Insider that Saudi could, however, start making small gestures toward peace

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PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 16: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) poses prior to a working lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Presidential Palace on June 16, 2023 in Paris, France.

Saudi Arabia is unlikely to normalize relations with Israel in any grand gesture, but rather take steps toward peace via a series of interim measures if a bilateral agreement between Washington and Riyadh emerges, professor Joshua Teitelbaum, a leading Israeli historian and expert on the modern Middle East specializing in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, said in an interview with Jewish Insider last week.

Teitelbaum, who teaches Middle East history at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, and who is also a research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies there, was selected last month to be a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. A native of the San Francisco Bay area, Teitelbaum, who moved to Israel more than 40 years ago, will engage in historical research about Saudi Arabia’s military at the institute, which is headed by former U.S. Secretary of State professor Condoleezza Rice.

In recent weeks, President Joe Biden, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have all hinted at the possibility of normalization between the Middle East’s largest nation and the Jewish state that might come as part of a larger deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

According to reports, the Biden administration is pushing for full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in an attempt to offset Chinese influence in the region and also secure oil supplies as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues. In addition, the White House is said to be asking the Saudis to consider following other Gulf countries in normalizing ties with Israel. 

In return, Saudi Arabia is demanding a mutual defense pact from the U.S. and its right to enrich uranium for civilian, and possibly military, purposes. There is also talk that it will demand Israel make concessions to the Palestinians, although what, exactly, has not yet been specified.  

Teitelbaum, who, as an Israeli citizen, has never visited Saudi Arabia and carries out his research through historical documents and other primary sources, said that while there may soon be some encouraging signs of peace coming from the Saudis towards Israel – perhaps the issuing of special visas for Israeli businesspeople or direct flights from Israel for Muslim pilgrims to holy sites – there will probably be no Abraham Accords-type announcement or grand ceremony.

Based on his historical expertise, the professor analyzed that while Saudi Arabia has long craved closer diplomatic and military ties with the U.S., it still “needs some kind of face-saving measure that it can use to signal to their population that they are helping out the Palestinians too.”

“I think there’s been a lot less support for the Palestinian issue over time, especially among certain elements of the population such as the elites who just want to do business with Israel… but [bin Salman] would still have to be able to present something to his people on behalf of the Palestinians,” Teitelbaum theorized. “The question is what’s the least Israel can do that will satisfy the Saudis?”

He noted that around the time the Emiratis and Bahrainis signed the Abraham Accords with Israel, Netanyahu’s ruling coalition was also discussing the controversial move to fully annex the West Bank. When Israel decided to drop these plans, “the Emiratis could present this whole image that they saved the Palestinians from annexation” by signing the Accords.  

During an interview with Fox News last month, bin Salman was asked what the Israelis would need to do for the Palestinians in order for Saudi Arabia to agree to normalize ties. He simply said, “We need to improve their lives.”

“In my opinion, this gives us a bit of a hint to a possible direction, something that may even not cause Netanyahu so many problems within his own coalition,” Teitelbaum said. “To me, he kind of hinted in the direction of something that the Saudis might find face-saving enough for them.”

Teitelbaum, who is set to publish a book looking at tribalism, the royal family and politics in modern Saudi Arabia, told JI that the most interesting aspect of the emerging deal is that it is the U.S. asking the Saudis to forge ties with Israel.

“This wasn’t the case with other countries in the region,” he pointed out, adding that “where history really comes into play in what is happening now, is Saudi Arabia’s sense of insecurity.

“The royal family in Saudi Arabia has always felt insecure,” Teitelbaum explained. “Now, that might sound a bit silly considering that the U.S. went to war in Iraq and Iraq is right on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep; also because of all the arms sold to them, but they’ve always felt very insecure… and there was never a guarantee that the U.S. would come through for them in a crunch.”

On the nuclear issue, he added, “Saudi Arabia has had a very small civilian nuclear research program for many years, but recently they discovered their own natural uranium, and they want to distinguish themselves from their friends in the UAE, who have a nuclear reactor.”

“They [Saudi Arabia] want control of the nuclear fuel cycle, they want to enrich their own uranium and they want United States approval or help to do this,” Teitelbaum said. “This is a huge issue both for Israel and for the U.S., but the reasons are strategic. If Iran has it, then they want it too.”

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