Saudi-Israel normalisation deal back in focus in shadow of Gaza war

US pushes for agreement to be reached as Biden looks for legacy in the Middle East

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A proposed US-backed deal to establish ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel gained renewed attention this week, but experts said it was unlikely to be signed without Israel ending its war on Gaza.

The administration of President Joe Biden had been pushing for ties to be established as part of a wider regional framework aimed at cementing an alliance opposed to Iran's influence.

Talks appeared to have made progress before the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war in October put plans on hold.

But with Washington facing criticism from all sides over its handling of the war, the administration has tried to revive talks. On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told politicians that progress had been made in wider talks with Riyadh.

The Biden administration wants a legacy, but I don't think Netanyahu wants or needs a deal now
Dina Esfandiary, Crisis Group

The likelihood of an agreement involving guarantees to Riyadh such as US security, in return for it agreeing to establish ties with Israel was met with scepticism by diplomats in the Middle East.

A deal would be one of the major diplomatic feats of the century. Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading oil exporter, has for decades been the largest financial supporter of the Palestinians. Its influence in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, is widely felt.

French political scientist Fatiha Dazi-Heni, a specialist in Gulf security, said Mr Blinken’s account of progress in the talks “must be treated with caution", because Mr Biden "is in search of symbolic victory” before the US presidential election in November.

But security arrangements between the US and Saudi Arabia could be “close and ready to be signed”, Ms Dazi-Heni said by phone from Paris.

Two-state solution

Mr Biden “absolutely wants in exchange that Saudi Arabia accepts normalisation with Israel", which the kingdom tied to a two-state solution, she said.

Israeli leaders have repeatedly voiced opposition to the two-state solution, which is the most widely accepted plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

Saudi authorities want "total security guarantees” from the US, but "cannot afford to ignore finding a solution for Palestinians”, Ms Dazi-Heni said.

She said there could be a compromise under which security arrangements would be signed, in exchange for Saudi Arabia promising to expand talks with Israel, but without “giving everything to the Biden administration before the elections”.

“I don't see a total arrangement, especially in this terrifying context of the war in Gaza," she said.

The Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7 killed 1,200. Israel’s retaliatory bombardment of the enclave has killed more than 35,700, health authorities said.

Dina Esfandiary, an adviser to the Crisis Group, said the US was "soldiering on" with the deal, even though there was no appetite for it from Israel.

"The Biden administration wants a legacy, but I don't think [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu wants or needs [a deal] now," Ms Esfandiary said. "I don't see Israel signing on unless the US puts massive pressure on Israel."

But Saudi Arabia may have its own reasons to show flexibility. The Iranian attack on Israel five weeks ago raised concerns among US allies in the region, because it showed Tehran's ability to launch a multipronged offensive against its rivals.

'Lame duck'

A former Jordanian intelligence officer suggested a deal may have almost be concluded.

Saud Al Sharafat, head of the Shorufat Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Terrorism in Amman, said the overall normalisation framework may be close, but it will not be announced because of Saudi commitments to the Palestinian issue.

"Biden in a way is a lame duck,” he said. "For Saudi Arabia, this deal is a chance that it cannot afford to miss. The Iranian threat is 100 per cent there."

Updated: May 27, 2024, 5:55 AM