Amid the barrage of Saudi-related news since last Friday, a peculiar US media “exclusive” about the Kingdom’s “price” for normalizing ties with Israel went unnoticed. Unsurprisingly, this “news” — I use the term loosely — was overshadowed by the groundbreaking Saudi-Iranian pact mediated by China.
The so-called “price” isn’t news because there’s nothing new about it. More precisely described as ideas, they have been discussed since the era of Donald Trump, whose senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner led efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A senior Saudi official confirmed to Arab News that the latest leak of these terms did not come from the Kingdom, which means the source was probably a senior US adviser with ties to Israel or a national security role.
I myself heard some of these Saudi “conditions” at a high-level briefing last year, where it was made clear that they could be discussed only AFTER a solution was found for the rights of Palestinians — which has always been the first condition for Saudi Arabia.
The context is for the Kingdom to be treated in the same way as some of the countries that have peace treaties with Israel when it comes to rights and privileges. Issues such as the right to peaceful use of uranium, joining NATO in some capacity, and being named as a US strategic ally, could all be discussed after a Palestinian solution is found.
Had the two US newspapers that carried the “news” — done a little research, they would have found that their “scoop” had already appeared in i24 in Israel last December and the Jerusalem Post this January
Faisal J. Abbas
Moreover, had editors at the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times — which carried the “news” — done a little research, they would have found that their “scoop” had already appeared in i24 in Israel last December and the Jerusalem Post this January.
Understandably, for Israeli media, these stories were timely. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just won re-election, having campaigned on making Saudi normalization a priority. Of course — as a senior Saudi official told me at the time — that element of Netanyahu’s rhetoric was for internal Israeli campaigning and consumption. Netanyahu also raised the issue in an interview with the Saudi media outlet Al Arabiya December last year. The appearance was paraded by some of Netanyahu’s enthusiasts as a first (wrongly, since he had also given an interview to Al Arabiya in August).
So if there’s nothing new here, why am I writing about it? Two reasons: first, because the pact with Iran (assuming the regime in Tehran sticks to it) has given the Saudi relationship with Israel new salience; and second, because the Saudi terms themselves need to be discussed. Those reasons are intertwined.
It has been suggested that the deal with Iran is harmful to possible Saudi normalization with Israel, with the Biden administration culpable of so alienating the Kingdom that it chose the Chinese as mediators. That is partly true, but not wholly. As I said in my last column, China was chosen purely because Beijing has leverage over Iran, and this has nothing to do with the relationship with America. Moreover, the White House has said it was aware of the discussions and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has welcomed the agreement.
Of course, it can be argued that if Tehran behaves itself going forward, then Israel loses the important card of “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But I would argue that this card was never going to be sustainable, it relies on too many variables.
What is sustainable, however, is what Saudi Arabia has long been advocating: a fair and just solution to the plight of Palestinians. This country has argued for decades that it views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a land dispute, not an ideological war. Unlike the Iranians and their proxies, we have no wish to throw Jews into the sea or abolish the state of Israel. Clearly, a just solution requires bold and capable Palestinian leadership, and an acknowledgment that they have a well-earned reputation for never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
What is sustainable is what Saudi Arabia has been advocating for decades: a fair and just solution to the plight of Palestinians
Faisal J. Abbas
On the other hand, Netanyahu’s new far-right government has gone too far in oppressing and intimidating Palestinians. Condemnation has come from their closest allies in Washington, from members of the American Jewish community, and even from Israel’s own citizens who have taken to the streets in protest. Israel’s actions also embarrassed signatories to the Abraham Accords (the UAE condemned Israeli aggression at Al-Aqsa Mosque and Jenin refugee camp), which makes it harder for other countries to even consider taking the same route.
As for the other Saudi conditions, the way I see them is a natural result of normalizing ties with Israel. After all, no one has anything to fear from Saudi exploitation of its uranium reserves. As for joining NATO in one capacity or another, I do believe the issue is bigger, and has to do with flip-flopping US policy. On one hand, American officials give repeated oral reassurances that they are committed to the security of the Kingdom, but refuse to put that in writing or in a formal framework.
The declassification of the Houthis as a terrorist group and withdrawal of Patriot missile batteries — while Saudi civilians were being attacked — still leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the Kingdom.
When the Biden White House denies Saudi Arabia the means to defend itself, refuses to guarantee Saudi security in writing (when it knows all too well that this is in its own interests), and negotiates with Iran about everything apart from the security of its own allies, then Riyadh cannot be blamed for seeking alternatives to defend its people, such as accepting the Chinese offer to mediate.
Israel, meanwhile, is a victim of collateral damage as a result of strained Saudi relations with the US, and self-inflicted wounds from its treatment of the Palestinians. The good news is that despite the deal with Iran, there is still hope for Israel to normalize ties with the Kingdom. However, Israel should first take a leaf out of the Old Testament: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News