Crown prince Mohamad bin Salman > US State Department, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As the UN General Assembly convened last week, longstanding speculation around the potential for a normalisation deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia has reached a fever pitch.

What happened

  • On Wednesday, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman claimed in an interview with Fox News that “every day we get closer” to his country normalising ties with Israel – a move that would represent the most significant step in Israel’s normalisation within the Middle East since the Jewish state’s establishment in 1948.
  • Bin Salman also added that Saudi Arabia’s support for the Palestinian cause – historically the root of the country’s refusal to recognise Israel – would constitute a “very important” component of any peace deal with Israel.
  • Bin Salman also denied recent speculation that talks with Israel had been suspended as “not true”.
  • The comments, unusually made in English, represented a note of optimism following a meeting between US president Joe Biden and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
  • For his part, Netanyahu made explicit reference to the possibility of a deal in his address to the UN General Assembly on Friday, arguing: “Such a peace will go a long way to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict” and would “encourage other Arab states to normalise their relations with Israel […] enhance the prospects of peace with the Palestinians […] encourage a broader reconciliation between Judaism and Islam, between Jerusalem and Mecca, between the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael.”
  • In what was perhaps an encouraging sign for the prospects of a deal, a lone Saudi official was one of the few delegates listening to Netanyahu’s address, which took place on the final morning of this year’s General Assembly.

 Long time coming

  • Bin Salman, de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, in the place of his 87-year-old father King Salman, has long been seen as less hostile to Israel than the current monarch.
  • Last year, he told The Atlantic that, “We don’t look at Israel as an enemy, we look to them as a potential ally with many interests that we can pursue together.”
  • In his Fox interview, the crown prince claimed, “if we have a breakthrough [toward] reaching a deal that gives the Palestinians their needs and makes the region calm, we’re going to work with whoever’s there”, bin Salman stated.
  • When pressed on what such a deal would represent for the Palestinians, he declined to elaborate but said that he “want[s] to see really a good life for the Palestinians”.
  • Palestinian statehood as part of a negotiated two-state solution has been a longstanding goal of Saudi Arabia, which introduced the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 establishing the precedent that the Arab world would normalise diplomatic ties with Israel only once a Palestinian state came into being.
  • However, this position has been shifting since the 2020 Abraham Accords, when Israel was recognised by four Arab countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – with tacit Saudi approval.

Landing zones
Following Netanyahu’s meeting with Biden on Wednesday, a senior White House official said that Israel also understood the importance of the Palestinian issue within the wider normalisation talks: “There’s a common understanding amongst all the leaders about this very historic step between Israel and Saudi Arabia, that all the leaders involved in this have to do some very hard things, and that includes the prime minister of Israel, and that includes some component related to the fundamental issue between Israelis and Palestinians.”
This appeared to be echoed in comments from a senior Israeli official, who told reporters on condition of anonymity that Netanyahu had made clear his view to Biden that “Palestinians should be part of the process but should not have a veto over the process.” This followed optimistic comments by Netanyahu before the meeting with Biden that a normalisation deal with the Saudis “would go a long way first to advance the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state and advance a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians”.

Quid pro quo
Alongside concessions to the Palestinians, the demands of the Saudi government from Israel and the US are increasingly clear.

  • Saudi Arabia is reportedly asking for a major defence pact with the US, alongside significant arms deals and American support in establishing a civilian nuclear programme on Saudi soil.
  • Washington, for its part, has reportedly asked for the Saudis to reduce economic and military dealings with China and Russia as part of the increasingly tripartite deal.

With friends like these
As he came to New York to address the General Assembly, Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi gave the Islamic Republic’s view on the prospect of peace between Israel and the Saudis. “We believe that a relationship between regional countries and the Zionist regime would be a stab in the back of the Palestinian people and of the resistance of the Palestinians,” Raisi told reporters. “The initiation of a relationship between the Zionist regime and any country in the region, if it is with the aim to bring security for the Zionist regime, will certainly not do so.” Saudi Arabia and Israel have moved towards normalisation in part over shared hostility to Iran and its destabilising influence in the Middle East, which was also a major motivator behind the Abraham Accords three years ago.

Back at the ranch
Amid the foreign policy speculation and Netanyahu’s visit to New York, the fraught divisions of Israeli politics pose challenges to the prospect of a deal with the Saudis being signed off.

  • On Wednesday, former prime minister and current leader of the opposition Yair Lapid accused Netanyahu of “having lost control of his ministers”, allowing rogue policies to be pushed and risking Israel’s national security.
  • Relatedly, Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partner Itamar Ben-Gvir indicated late last week that at least two parties would quit the coalition government if concessions were made to the Palestinians by Netanyahu as part of a Saudi deal.
  • “If there will be concessions for the Palestinians, we will not remain in the government”, Ben Gvir said in a statement. “Netanyahu can only make this deal with [Benny] Gantz,” the statement continued, referring to the former defence minister and opposition National Unity party leader who has already ruled out the possibility of joining Netanyahu’s government to ensure a Saudi normalisation deal.
  • Meanwhile, Saturday night saw the 38th week of mass protests against the coalition government’s controversial judicial reforms, with 100,000 people attending the main rally in Tel Aviv.
  • Protest leader professor Shikma Bressler made explicit reference to speculation around a Saudi deal, telling protestors: “We won’t fall for any spin […] we fully understand that just like the Abraham Accords didn’t prevent the regime coup, a deal with Saudi Arabia also won’t stop those who want a messianic dictatorship” – a reference to the proposed reforms’ undermining of Israel’s democratic foundations and the presence of ultra-nationalist religious zealots in the coalition government.

What happens next
As Israel and the Saudis inch towards an historic normalisation deal, the devil will ultimately be in the detail with regard to whether the agreement can receive the approval it needs. Ironically, it may be domestic divisions within Israel – within the governing coalition and between the government and opposition – that pose the biggest challenge to the deal’s ultimate approval.