Foreign Affairs
Saudi Arabia-Israel: The Timing and Implications

Recent discussions suggest that Saudi Arabia may ratify normalization with Israel, rekindling Netanyahu’s hopes and returning the United States to its role as mediator of a “new Middle East.” Between August and December 2020, Israel achieved normalization of relations with four Arab countries, Morocco, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, marking a historic turning point in regional relations. Now, three years after the Abraham Accords’ ratification, Saudi Arabia is once again discussing the possibility of joining the small group of neighbors.

The Abraham Accords were initially seen as a sudden event due to the numerous signs of rapprochement shown by the four Arab countries towards Israel. However, the profound confidentiality surrounding relations between Arab countries and their Zionist neighbor has made it difficult for them to escape the inattentive eye. Since its foundation, Israel has faced hostility from its Arab neighbors, who have created a solid and compact front. Egypt was the first to give in, agreeing to ratify the separate peace in 1977 to re-annex the Sinai. Jordan saw the possibility of pacifying relations with Israel without incurring the wrath of other Arab League members.

Despite the call for a boycott against Israel, Arab neighbors began to thicken commercial networks with Tel Aviv while remaining discreet and not officially recognizing the State. This tacit openness led to the ratification of the Abraham Accords, which did not surprise many Arab ratifiers.

The United States promised Sudan exclusion from the black list of countries that sponsor terrorism, freeing it from heavy sanctions. Morocco saw US recognition of its claims to sovereignty over Western Sahara as an incentive for ratification. The most profitable agreement was reached by the Emirates, who obtained contracts from the US for the sale of F-35 military aircraft, a technology only possessed by Israel throughout the Middle East. Bahrain’s decision was determined by Saudi Arabia’s coercive power over the state.

The decision of the four countries is related to the role of the United States, which played a significant role in the peace process. President Donald Trump pursued America First, making direct relations prevail in the international sphere rather than multilateralism. This led to Trump re-embrace his role as “guardian” of the Middle East.

The fate of the expansion of ratifiers is linked to the new US administration, with Biden supporting Trump’s steps regarding the Palestinian issue, despite having restored aid to the population in 2021. Saudi Arabia initially showed interest in normalization with Israel during the ratification period of the Abraham Accords, but a cost-benefit analysis found unbalanced, leading Riyadh to take more time to make its decision.

The Saudi monarchy has maintained its exclusive support for the Arab Peace Initiative, a peace proposal proposed by Riyadh that proposes a two-state solution with Israel withdrawing from territories conquered in 1967 and creating a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. However, rapprochement between the two parties is increasingly tangible, as evidenced by a flight from the Seychelles to Tel Aviv being forced into an emergency manoeuvre in August this year. Despite lifting the ban on Israeli overflights in 2022, Riyadh’s response was greeted by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was greeted in Hebrew by the Saudis.

Riyadh continues to balance its choices, sending its delegation to Saudi Arabia numerous times and visiting the Occupied Territories to underline his support for the Palestinian cause. One reason for Riyadh’s reluctance to accept the agreement is the Palestinian population’s harsh tones towards Arab countries at the time of the Abraham Accords.

The benefits of this new relationship with Israel seem to outweigh the costs, as Riyadh and Tel Aviv have a common adversary and would do everything to block his rise. Although Saudi and Iran reached an agreement to restore relations in March, it cannot be said that the two states are truly friendly. The Saudi objective is to obtain an alliance following the NATO model, providing for the obligation to intervene if one of its members is attacked. This defense pact would allow Riyadh, allied with Israel and the United States, to sleep soundly with their military arsenal.

Israel’s desire to include Saudi Arabia in its allies has led to concerns about the nuclear program’s potential. Netanyahu’s government is struggling with jurisdiction reform and needs success to ensure consensus. The US faces challenges from China’s rise, which has impacted the Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement. The Biden government faces challenges in granting Riyadh a nuclear power position and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Biden, approaching the presidential elections, knows the resolution of the conflict is close to his people’s hearts and that every step towards it could secure him a few votes. Riyadh insists on not accepting any agreement without steps forward for the Palestinians, similar to Israel’s refusal to make public concessions to convince her to accept. The Biden-Netanyahu relationship has been marked by disagreements over judicial reform and settlement creation.

BahrainMiddle EastRiyadh-Tel AvivRiyadh-Tel Aviv: The Timing and ImplicationsSaudi ArabiaSaudi Arabia-Israel: The Timing and ImplicationsUnited Arab Emirates