September 8, 2023 | Yediot Aharonot

Saudi Arabia and Israel: Three Angles

Full normalization with Saudi Arabia at this time is farther than it appears– and Israel must be careful that in trying to reach normalization, it does not yield on essential security interests.
September 8, 2023 | Yediot Aharonot

Saudi Arabia and Israel: Three Angles

Full normalization with Saudi Arabia at this time is farther than it appears– and Israel must be careful that in trying to reach normalization, it does not yield on essential security interests.

*This article was originally published in Hebrew

The Israeli angle.  Normalization with Saudi Arabia is rightfully considered the Holy Grail in cementing Israel’s position in the Middle East. The economic potential with Saudi Arabia and the opening of a political horizon with the rest of the Sunni Muslim world would be unprecedented, and these incentives have led to a years-long effort at clandestine dialogue.

For a long time, the main reason for the delay in progress towards normalization was the lack of parallel progress with the Palestinians.  The Saudis, who launched the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, for years made its progress a condition for normalization with Israel.  In recent years however, the Arab world has come to understand that open relations with Israel can serve important security and economic interests that stand on their own.  Deep Arab disappointment with the behavior of the Palestinian leadership and a changing of the guard of the Arab political leadership contributed to this.  This is how the Abraham Accords were signed after ceding a substantial demand in the Palestinian arena (Israel agreed not to annex parts of the West Bank), after which there were also initial signs of a re-warming of relationships with Egypt and Jordan.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defined normalization with Saudi Arabia as one of the central goals of his government, and this is in the light of the understanding that there is a convergence of interests between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

What do the Saudis want?  First of all, they want to improve their position with the United States, which weakened following a dispute over the policy of exporting oil and cooperation with China, not to mention the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.  Saudi Arabia is interested in advanced weaponry and a defense pact with the United States to defend it from Iran, and Riyadh also aims to develop a civilian nuclear program with a complete fuel cycle that includes mining uranium, conversion, enrichment, and activating reactors.  Saudi Arabia claims, and rightfully from its standpoint, that after the nuclear deal of 2015 gave Iran the right to a fuel cycle, it also entitled to a fuel cycle. The Saudis warn that if they don’t receive this from the United States, it will receive it from China.

If Saudi Arabia, God forbid, were to receive a complete fuel cycle, this means it would potentially be able to build a clandestine program and develop a nuclear weapon.  Moreover, many other countries would likely demand to follow in its footsteps – leading to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Israel cannot confuse its priorities. Normalization with Saudi Arabia cannot come at the expense of preventing the nuclearization of countries in the region.  Netanyahu’s need for a political achievement, not to mention his desire to visit the White House (after being frozen out by the Biden Administration for more than a half a year), cannot come at the expense of Israel’s long-term strategic interests.

The American angle: Why is it urgent for the United States to promote normalization with Saudi Arabia?  It depends on who you ask.  Many members of Congress, from both parties, will say it is not urgent at all, and that Saudi Arabia is not worthy of advanced weaponry and nuclear technology.  The rivalry with China, and the anger that Saudi Arabia is playing both powers against each other, will make it difficult when the time comes to support a deal. 

At the same time, the Biden administration is interested in slowing the trend of Chinese penetration into the Middle East and to prevent Saudi Arabia from drifting. Israel’s security is also a priority, not to mention the monumental diplomatic achievement that would arise from forging peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

Still, Democrats will not look favorably upon a normalization agreement without meaningful concessions to the Palestinians, which the current coalition in Israel does not want and will not provide.  Accordingly, it is difficult to know whether the United States can line up all the necessary components in the short time before the November 2024 election cycle begins.

From a personal angle:  As someone involved for years with forging closer ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, I would be thrilled to see the realization of the normalization process. At the same time, we cannot allow independent enrichment in the hands of a single country in our region. It is necessary to stick to solutions that prevent the proliferation of sensitive nuclear technology.

Finally, it’s hard to see how a deal with Saudi Arabia can be realized without a substantial package for the Palestinians. The Americans and Saudis are both likely to demand one. Therefore, the chances of reaching an agreement appear rather low.  This suggests the possibility that we are marching towards missing a historic opportunity for normalization and conceding essential security interests on the nuclear file while doing so. The worst outcome from all these nuclear concessions would be Israel’s opening position in any future negotiation.

Dr. Eyal Hulata is Israel’s former National Security Advisor and head of the National Security Council.  He is currently a senior international fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

Issues:

Arab Politics Gulf States Israel Palestinian Politics