Normalization of Israeli-Saudi relations has been a major topic of news coverage and debate in Israel in the past weeks. The prospect of such an accord is thereby inevitably portrayed as both a policy goal close to President Biden’s heart and a crucial opportunity to enhance Israel’s relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors and the wider Arab and Islamic world. At a time when the general Israeli public seems largely uninterested in the Palestinian issue and no political process between Israelis and Palestinians appeared to be on the horizon, it was even reported that National Security Council head Tzachi Hanegbi sustained a dialogue with Palestinian officials at Israeli Prime Minister’s Netanyahu’s request.
Last Sunday, however, the Saudis seemed to be pulling the plug, at least temporarily, as an unofficial report claimed they do not see any opportunity for progress on the Palestinian front. Amidst speculation about the Saudi regime’s own and true motives for normalization talks, such progress continues to constitute a central condition to fulfill on the way to an Israeli-Saudi-US agreement. The main reason cited for the Saudi freeze was the presence of “extremists” in Israel’s government, whose views and policies are irreconcilable with the concessions towards the Palestinians that the kingdom’s leadership is expected to pocket before clinching a deal.
The report on the suspension was quickly denied, and Saudi ruler Mohammed Bin Salman himself touted the prospects of peace with Israel in a television interview a few days later. The episode, however, confirms that the Palestinian issue is sufficiently important within the country and across the Arab world to be put forward as a reason to hold off the US-led negotiations. The living conditions and fate of millions of Palestinians are an issue that populations from Marrakesh to Baghdad and from Tyre to Muscat identify with, not only because of the plight of the Palestinians themselves, but also in a symbolic way, as a measure of how the rest of the world, mainly the West, treats the Arab world. Therefore, while it may well be that leaders in Riyadh are more interested in reaping other benefits from a deal with the US and Israel, such as a defense alliance, military upgrades or nuclear technology, the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian question appears to retain its status of an obstacle impossible to ignore.
This is not only true in a Middle Eastern context; it now seems to be the case on the global chessboard as well. For years, the world has managed to ignore the Palestinian issue as long as violence did not make international headlines. Beyond international aid, the complex situation in which the Palestinian population has found itself, an intricate result of calamity and missed opportunity, has not moved many to action. For most Israelis, too, the matter is seen as relevant only in relation to terrorist attacks and their prevention, while the country has proven able to carry on, be it at a cost of human lives and without ever attaining the security others do enjoy. Now, in the context of worldwide developments, the Israeli-Palestinian question seems on its way to becoming a pawn in a bigger power game, a small pawn perhaps, but one that may prevent major players from winning the game altogether.
Indeed, while American and Israeli media have repeatedly pointed out that an Israeli-Saudi deal under US aegis would present as a historical achievement for President Biden (including a photo shoot on the White House lawn), the real US interest in an extension of the Abraham accords probably also lies elsewhere. When regional archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to reestablish relations last spring, that agreement was concluded under Chinese auspices. To the US, it would be anathema to see Saudi Arabia – a state it sees as important yet could improve relations with – fall into the fold of China, the 1.4 billion inhabitant country that increasingly challenges American influence worldwide.
Progress on the Israeli-Palestinian scene and steps towards final status arrangements will not end global power competition. But it would be an illusion to think that major international players can stake out a balanced foreign policy while continuing to ignore the century-old issue that opposes Jews and Arabs in the Levant.
The brief volte-face in Riyadh thus comes as a stark and timely reminder. Crucially, at a moment in which insecurity and instability continue to mount on both sides of the Green Line, the Saudi message offers an opportunity to consider the Israeli-Palestinian question in its right proportions by inquiring into the causes that have protracted it decade after decade. With the necessary homework done, it is possible to reach a Middle Eastern deal that all parties benefit from. Such a deal will not by itself bring about a harmonious world order, but it could be one entanglement in world politics less. Most importantly, it would lead to better lives for Palestinians and Israelis alike.
Dr. Alexander Loengarov is a Senior Affiliated Fellow at the Institute for International Law at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven, Belgium), as well as a former official of the European Economic and Social Committee of the European Union.
His writings reflect solely his own views, and not those of the European Economic and Social Committee or the European Union, which cannot be held responsible for any use made of it.