September 29, 2023 | All Arab News

The New Middle East? An Israeli official goes to Riyadh while a Saudi official visits Ramallah

Here’s why things are changing so fast in Arab-Israeli relations
September 29, 2023 | All Arab News

The New Middle East? An Israeli official goes to Riyadh while a Saudi official visits Ramallah

Here’s why things are changing so fast in Arab-Israeli relations

Unprecedented public moves have been coming from Riyadh toward both Jerusalem and Ramallah in the past few weeks.

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman (MBS) stated during an interview with Fox News last week that his government’s relations with Israel is getting “closer” every day.

But he added that movement on the Palestinian issue and improving the lives of the Palestinian people is “very important” to him.

It would seem that the Saudis are treating both Israelis and Palestinians equally in preparation for a deal, though it’s possible that Riyadh could lose interest if Palestinian demands are too high.

And here comes the role of the Biden administration: to moderate big “asks” and provide a reality check to Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

Dramatic Steps Forward in Saudi-Israel Relations in Recent Days

Despite no official relations, Israeli tourism minister Haim Katz made history this week by becoming the first Israeli cabinet official ever to publicly visit Riyadh.

Katz attended a tourism conference and openly gave an interview with Israeli news channel 11 to discuss his impressions.

Earlier this month, an Israeli business and diplomatic delegation attended a Saudi government sponsored cybersecurity conference and UNESCO meeting in Dammam and Riyadh respectively.

Most surprisingly, Israeli citizens were treated courteously at Jeddah International Airport upon making an unscheduled landing due to a technical issue with their aircraft en route from Seychelles.

Moreover, this upcoming week, an Israeli delegation will be participating in the fourth Extraordinary Congress held in Riyadh from October 1-5.

Dramatic Steps Forward in Saudi-Palestinian Relations, too

A shift can be spotted on the Palestinian front as well.

Traveling via Jordan, the first official Saudi delegation since 1993 arrived in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority.

Saudi Ambassador Nayef al-Sudairi publicly and privately affirmed his government’s commitment to Palestinian issues.

Sudairi also presented his credentials to serve as Riyadh’s non-resident counsel general to East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their rightful capital.

Throughout the past month, senior Saudi officials have made numerous public statements – including at the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly – vowing that Riyadh will not leave Palestinians alone, will resume providing financial aid, and will re-engage in pushing for more Palestinian rights.

What do the Saudis want?

Seeking to be the “biggest game in town” when it comes to America’s Arab allies, Riyadh wants to cement its status among the “pro-two state solution camp” in Washington policy circles.

Since a rapprochement with the Palestinians is likely to be applauded in Washington and Europe, Saudi leaders believe they can utilize these moves behind closed doors as a negotiation tactic with the Biden administration as they seek to significantly improve U.S.-Saudi relations into a full-blown NATO-like alliance.

Meanwhile, the Saudis believe that stepping back into an active role in the West Bank is likely to give the Gulf monarchy a platform to counterbalance Iranian mingling.

It will also help them compete with the United Arab Emirates, which appears to be trying to influence Palestinian affairs by sponsoring the political camp of Mohammed Dahlan, a key Palestinian leader – and sharp critical of President Mahmoud Abbas –who currently lives in exile in Abu Dhabi.

Direct involvement with Ramallah policy circles – and even Jerusalemites – is also likely to give the Kingdom a chance to identify loyalists who will support its agenda.

Saving face in the Muslim world

The Saudis are very keen on burnishing their long-cultivated status as protectors of Palestinian rights in the broader Islamic world.

Unlike the UAE and Bahrain, they envision any peace accord with Jerusalem will have more legitimacy if there are serious steps in favor of a Palestinian state.

And any win for the Palestinians is likely to help the Saudi leadership sell the normalization deal with Israel to local Saudi skeptics and critics (even though Riyadh is very tough on anyone inside the Kingdom they consider political opposition).

Luring the Israeli right into perks of normalization

Quick stints by Israeli officials into the Kingdom have left many with very positive impressions on potentials of cooperation.

Samer Haj Yehia, chairman of Israel’s Bank Leumi, stated he believes there are “amazing” opportunities in the desert kingdom after he visited last Fall.

Such statements are likely to stir dialogues in the Israeli business and policy community in favor of seeing the big picture of giving concessions to the Palestinians in exchange for integrating Israel into the region through a peace deal with the most influential Arab and Muslim capital.

According to a recent report by the Israel Democracy Institute, 56% from the Israeli right see a deal with Saudis is important.

Indeed, 77% of Israelis on the left – and 63% in the center – see a Saudi deal as good and important.

But the Saudis know there is more work to be done, especially on Israel’s far right.

Big challenge ahead

That said, a potential conflict of interest with the first generation of Arab peacemakers is likely to loom on the horizon.

A Saudi-Israeli normalization may render both Amman and Cairo as junior partners in future diplomacy.

Riyadh’s massive financial capital and technological capabilities will further eclipse the influence that Jordan and Egypt have among Israelis and Palestinians alike.

How MBS will navigate and manage these other challenges remain to be seen.

Haisam Hassanein is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he analyzes Israel’s relations with Arab and Muslim countries. Follow him on X @HaisamHassanei1. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Arab Politics Egypt Israel Jordan Palestinian Politics