Saudi-Israel normalisation still far off, former Israeli official says

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says a peace deal with Saudi Arabia would be a 'quantum leap' for region and a key priority for his government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. Reuters
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A coveted peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia is still far off, a former Israeli official on Gulf affairs has told The National, despite Israel’s foreign minister saying that such a deal has never been closer.

Yoel Guzansky’s assessment came amid a flurry of Israeli media reports that US-Saudi talks on the agreement are progressing at an unprecedented rate.

Normalising ties with the Gulf kingdom would be one of the biggest foreign policy coups in Israel’s history, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is keen for a major win as he battles fierce domestic opposition to his far-right coalition, has described a potential deal as a “quantum leap” for the region.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen added to speculation of an impending deal when he said Israel was the “closest we have ever been” to such an agreement, and that the Palestinian issue was not a “barrier” to progress.

But Mr Guzansky, who served on Israel’s National Security Council, said that while progress has been made in recent weeks, significant challenges remain.

“Mr Cohen said everything, while also saying nothing. I agree that there has been progress. But a deal is not going to come tomorrow,” he said.

“What’s changed in recent weeks and months is that we see the Biden administration actually putting in effort. Apparently, the president now believes a deal is reachable.”

US President Joe Biden, whose National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia last week, has confirmed that his administration is working towards a normalisation deal.

“There’s a rapprochement maybe under way,” Mr Biden said at a campaign event on Friday, without offering further details.

Mr Guzansky believes Israel has had little to do with any progress so far.

“The main advances today are between Saudi Arabia and the US. That’s the only channel in which discussions of a peace deal are taking place. Israel is only a bystander, and gets its updates from the US.”

“I am inclined to think the Americans aren’t telling us everything. It’s natural to keep some things to themselves. I don’t think Israel has the full picture.”

The behind-the-scenes talks come amid strained relations between Israel and the US, its most important ally.

Mr Netanyahu’s coalition, the most right-wing in Israeli history, is under heavy US scrutiny for its plans to radically change the judicial system, which have sparked months of mass protests domestically, and its hardline West Bank settlement programme.

“Perhaps no one will say it out loud, but I think the Biden administration has an interest in shaping Israel’s internal politics away from today’s trajectory by offering its politicians the prospect of a normalisation deal,” Mr Guzansky said.

Indeed, despite Israel’s absence from the talks, the possibility of a deal is still shaping its internal politics.

Israeli outlet Walla reported at the end of July that the leaders of Israel’s two biggest opposition parties would consider supporting the government to get a normalisation deal over the line, a remarkable move given the current political polarisation.

Mr Guzansky went further, saying: “I think Lapid and Gantz could join a coalition with Netanyahu. A lot of water will need to pass under the bridge first, but at some stage, even the US would urge them to join.”

The importance of centrist parties joining the deal is down to far-right members of the current coalition being unwilling to approve Saudi demands for Israel to make major concessions towards the Palestinians.

“I don’t see how you could get a deal with the current coalition”, he said, stressing that Riyadh would ask for significant concessions to the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia’s long-standing position has been that any recognition of Israel would be conditioned on a two-state solution and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Benefit to Biden

With a US presidential election next year, and former president Donald Trump making a strong bid to seek a second term as the Republican party's candidate, Mr Guzansky believes that American politics could also be pushing the deal forward.

“Trump is rising in the polls. Biden needs to show for his campaign that he too can make peace in the Middle East,” Mr Guzansky said.

Mr Biden’s efforts come after accusations that he is speeding up an apparent US withdrawal from the Middle East.

But there have been reports in recent months that the administration is now seeking to reassert its role in the region.

“Biden’s dialogue with the Saudis is far bigger than Israel-Saudi normalisation. The administration’s huge plan is to signal to the international community that it never left the Middle East, whether it be to keep China out of the region or deter Iran,” Mr Guzansky added.

Updated: August 02, 2023, 3:13 AM