The price must be right for Israel-Saudi normalization

Meir Ben-Shabbat credit: Noam Moskowitz Knesset Spokesperson
Meir Ben-Shabbat credit: Noam Moskowitz Knesset Spokesperson

Israel faces three challenges in normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia, says former National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat.

"Many of the elements of a pathway to normalization are now on the table. We don’t have a framework, we don’t have the terms ready to be signed." White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said last week about the status of the talks to prepare normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, when he was with US President Joe Biden's entourage on the way to the G20 summit in New Delhi. "There is still work to do," he concluded.

Sullivan's dry and laconic description did not detail the many issues that must be agreed for normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel to be achieved. It is possible that in his description, he was trying to lower expectations and cool the sense of euphoria, which reports on this matter have created in some places. However, President Biden's announcement two days later on the huge infrastructure project to connect South Asia with the Middle East and Europe through ports and railways raised the level of optimism to a new high.

The chances of reaching such an agreement have never seemed higher. Each of the three leaders - Joe Biden, Mohammed bin Salman and Benjamin Netanyahu - has very good reasons to want it. The window of opportunity, which is limited to a few months, urges them to speed up discussions and exhaust the areas of flexibility on the issues that are expected to provoke controversy.

The recent positive signals from Saudi Arabia, in hosting Israeli businesspeople at a government conference on cybersecurity, the attitude demonstrated when a plane full of Israelis that encountered a problem on its way from the Seychelles landed in Jeddah, and the messages conveyed to the Palestinians, show the readiness that exists on its part for such a move. It seems now that the question is not whether there will be an agreement, but what price each side will pay for it.

A normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel may not only change the face of the Middle East, but also affect the camps that are forming today as part of the struggle for the new world order. From Israel's point of view, the achievement of such an agreement is a very important goal. It will put an end to 120 years of ideological war waged by the Arab world against the return of the Jews to Zion, and will reduce the dimensions of the conflict between it and the Arab world to the status of a local, Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It will create new regional and international partnerships. It will have weighty security implications and dramatic effects on the economy. Israeli startups and research centers in the fields of water, agriculture, renewable energy, smart transport and cybersecurity will be able to help turn the innovative city of Neom and other giant Saudi projects into global successes. Apart from that, such an agreement would have a religious significance in view of Saudi Arabia's position as the nation in charge of Mecca and Medina - the holy cities of Islam.

What do Biden and bin Salman want?

The US needs this move first and foremost to distance Saudi Arabia from China and the axis that is gradually forming around it. This Chinese axis strives to control transport routes in the region and to deepen its grip on natural resources and energy sources in the Middle East. Such an agreement would curb the strengthening of the axis, placing a glass ceiling on its influence on the countries of the region and will win Washington important points in the fight for the new world order.

Such an agreement, according to the Americans, will also establish stability in the region and strengthen Israel.

It is clear that the necessity of such an agreement for Biden is not only from these considerations. The US president also needs this achievement for his political aims. Biden currently has no accomplishments that he can present for actual achievement in the field of normalization and peace agreements. Although the White House has expressed a desire to continue the momentum created by the Abraham Accords, the results have been meagre. The circle of partner countries to the agreements has not expanded, the progress in relations has mainly been through the bilateral channels that were paved during the Trump administration. Apart from the Negev Summit, whose main importance was its very existence, no significant civil initiatives and projects have been recorded by the broad partnership of the countries of the accords.

If an agreement is reached with Saudi Arabia, this will change this dismal picture. The agreement will be credited to Biden personally, will reduce the criticism against him for the results of his foreign policy and the abandonment of Middle East affairs, will provide him with leverage to achieve other goals that are important to him, such as the Palestinian issue, and will give him a significant political boost in the US presidential election campaign. This is also understood in the Republican camp in the US, and in order to get the support of those in the moves that depend on approval in the Senate, he would be happy if Israel also encouraged them to do so.

Normalization with Israel is necessary for bin Salman to promote his vision and the political, security and economic status and aims of Saudi Arabia. A defense agreement with the US, combined with advanced weapons and an opening to join the nuclear club, are some of the changes he expects to receive. On the economic level, he expects to promote his strategic plan 'Vision 2030', one of the pillars of which is the diversification of the Kingdom's sources of income and the development of the domestic economy through investments, entrepreneurship and the integration of advanced technologies. The continued economic strengthening of Saudi Arabia depends on the stability and security of the country and strategic economic collaborations.

Three challenges for Israel

While Saudi Arabia's demands are addressed to the US, with whom it maintains direct talks, it is clear that Israel will be asked to meet them, as a basis for the position that will be accepted by the White House. Three challenges will be faced by Netanyahu. The first, preventing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East due to the Saudi demand to obtain civil nuclear capabilities. The second challenge is maintaining Israel's qualitative advantage in the region in view of the Kingdom's desire to equip itself with advanced weapons, which corresponds with the desire that also exists in the US to promote large arms deals. The third challenge is to maintain Israeli interests in the Palestinian arena, given the expectations in Riyadh for significant progress on this issue. It can be assumed that the Americans are already using this to pressure Israel and extract significant concessions from it on this issue.

The list of concessions that Saudi Arabia expects to receive from the US is long. Some of them do not pose a problem for Israel, and are also desirable from its point of view. For example, Israel does not have to oppose a defense agreement between the US and Saudi Arabia. Israel has an interest in strengthening the US commitment to its allies in the region and so it should support this, even publicly. As for the supply of advanced US weapons to Saudi Arabia, Israel must condition its agreement on the fact that the US will take parallel steps that will guarantee Israel its qualitative advantage, for example by upgrading its capabilities, in cases where the weapons sold to Saudi Arabia will result in its advantage being eroded.

However, a significant dilemma that will confront Israel concerns the Saudi demand for US help in establishing a civilian nuclear infrastructure, including the ability to enrich uranium. You don't need to be a nuclear expert to understand for what purposes it is necessary. The accession of Saudi Arabia to the nuclear club will lead to the expansion of nuclear proliferation in the region. Other countries will work to obtain uranium enrichment capacity on their territory. It would not be right to respond to such a demand without an effective and long-term answer being given, which would reassure the Israeli security establishment.

As for the Palestinians, here too it would be wrong to agree to concessions of political or security significance in the Palestinian arena. The main criterion according to which it will be correct to examine our positions is reversibility. Do not agree to irreversible concessions (or the price of reversing them will be high).

The Israeli government is very interested in establishing relations with Saudi Arabia. This has the potential to transform the region, to promote the economy, technology, agriculture, health and many other areas in which Israel can express its advantages. Such an agreement may also revolutionize world trade and streamline the connection between East and West. The agreement is a very important goal for Israel that also justifies certain concessions. It is right to act so that its price, as far as Israel is concerned, is not unbearable. The agreement is good for Israel, but it is important to remember that the interest in it is not only Israel's and its cost must be shared among all the beneficiaries.

The author is the Head of the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy in Jerusalem and served as Israel's National Security Advisor from 2017-2021 and was Head of Israel's delegation to sign the Abraham Accords.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on September 14, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

Meir Ben-Shabbat credit: Noam Moskowitz Knesset Spokesperson
Meir Ben-Shabbat credit: Noam Moskowitz Knesset Spokesperson
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