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Can Netanyahu rise to the unparalleled historic occasion and normalize Israeli-Saudi selations?

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Thursday, 24 August 2023

Prime Minister Netanyahu faces a historic opportunity to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia and set the country on an unparalleled path of progress, security, and peace. But for that to happen, Netanyahu will have to agree to accept the Saudis' reported demand to establish a path that will lead to the end of the occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Given, however, Netanyahu's personal legal woes and his dependence on the most hard-core racist government in Israel's history to stay in power, will he sacrifice his personal interests by accepting the Saudi demands, which would certainly precipitate the collapse of his government and force him to face his legal peril? His other choice would be to forfeit such a historic opportunity by continuing to pursue policies that will dismantle Israel's democracy, convert Israel into an autocracy, intensify the violent conflict with the Palestinians, and put Israel always on the defensive while its enemies lay in wait.

Saudi Arabia is the de facto leading Arab state and is representative of Sunni Islam. Whether or not the Saudis care about the Palestinian cause, they cannot simply abandon the Palestinians to their own devices and still claim the leadership role they highly covet. The Saudis cannot and should not, under any circumstances, agree to normalize relations with Israel unless the Netanyahu government agrees to end the conflict with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution.

For the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia offers the last hope to protect their national interests. Should the Palestinians feel abandoned by the Saudis and have nothing left to lose, they will feel that they have no choice but to resort increasingly to violence against the Israelis with the intent of destabilizing the region and disrupting the normalization process between Israel and the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. The Palestinians know that should a major conflagration ensue between them and Israel, the Arab states will have little choice but to land on their side.


The advantages to Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia knows how much it can benefit directly from the normalization of relations with Israel in terms of technology, intelligence sharing, and above all regional security. Riyadh also knows that Israel wants normalization as much, if not more than they themselves. In addition, the Saudis know how much the Biden administration would like Riyadh and Jerusalem to reach an agreement because it would greatly serve the US's overall regional geostrategic interests. This includes curbing China's influence, containing Iran's nuclear weapon program, weakening extremism, and stabilizing the region to ensure the US' long-term unchallenged power over a region of pivotal strategic importance.

Knowing how much both the US and Israel would benefit from normalization and how eager they are to conclude such an agreement, the Saudis put forth three major requirements from the US as a prerequisite to normalizing relations with Israel:

Guaranteeing Saudi Arabia's national security along the line of the US' commitment to NATO, where an attack on any member state constitutes an attack on all member states, including the US.

Providing nuclear facilities for civilian purposes including the production of clean energy and for medical purposes along with the prestige that goes with it.

Approving the purchase of the US' most advanced weapons systems, including the F-35 airplane among other arsenals.

The Saudis are fully aware that President Biden wants to secure a major win just before the elections by building on the Abraham Accords. Obviously, they are in a position to hand him such a win provided that he meets their requirements.


Regardless of how desirable and far-reaching the implications of normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia are, for President Biden it remains an extremely difficult task to achieve due to two major factors. First, the Saudis' conditional requirements from the US will certainly evoke significant Congressional resistance. But if the deal ends the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a two-state solution, over which many Democratic leaders including Senators Chris Van Hollen and Tim Kaine insist, the Senate will more than likely approve it with some modifications because they understand and appreciate how significantly it will benefit the US' geostrategic interest.

The second and more daunting difficulty President Biden faces is Netanyahu's objections to making any major concession to the Palestinians, especially one that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state. In addition, Netanyahu's current coalition partners vehemently oppose any major concession to the Palestinians and any such move could lead to the dissolution of his government should Netanyahu make even a partial concession, such as the freezing of settlement expansion or ending any further annexation of Palestinian territory.

Juxtaposed to the position of Netanyahu and his government, it is critical for the Israeli public and a few of the less extreme members in the government to understand how paramount the consequences are for Israel's future should it normalize relations with Saudi Arabia.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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