It’s no secret at this stage that Saudi Arabia is trying to court Israel as part of its ongoing efforts to contain the perceived Iranian threat in the region, especially in the aftermath of the signing of the Iran Deal and the current American efforts aiming at “disengaging” from the region or, at the very least, minimizing America’s military footprint there.
But there’s courting and there’s courting. And Saudi courting, at least for now, doesn’t involve treating Israel like a normal state and is unlikely, therefore, to prove effective. As a recent statement by former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington Turki Al-Faisal makes clear, the Saudis continue to hold on to the belief that Israel needs to accept the Arab Peace Initiative in order for normalization to begin. The statement was made at a rare joint public appearance by a Saudi official alongside an Israeli, IDF Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror. The Times of Israel reports:
“I can’t understand why the Netanyahu government doesn’t seek to grab that offer that was presented in 2002 and work with not just the US, but with the Arab world in establishing peace,” al-Faisal said at the gathering, hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There is no requirement for divine revelation or Einsteinian genius to know what peace is—two states, mutual swaps, mutual recognition, and engaging with each other.”
While Mr. Al-Faisal’s bafflement seems quite genuine and is, in my judgment, justified to a considerable degree, it nonetheless represents an outdated reading of the current situation.
The problems surrounding the prospects of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks at this stage cannot be easily reduced to Netanyahu’s government’s unreasonable, if not downright belligerent, attitude. There are problems on the Palestinian side as well: deep divisions along ideological and personality lines pitting the Palestinian Authority (PA) against Hamas, and various figures within the PA against each other; the calcification of corrupt PA rule in the West Bank; and the continuing rule of Hamas violence in Gaza.
At such, insistence on the Arab Peace Initiative at this stage is a non-starter. Netanyahu is not interested in symbolic gestures, and the Palestinian side is simply too divided and leaderless to enter into a meaningful agreement of the type that Al-Faisal envisions. Moreover, and considering what’s at stake—namely, containment of the Iranian threat—Iran will likely try to do something to derail any talks, and intra-Palestinian conflicts can be siezed upon for this purpose.
What all this means is that Saudi Arabia, among other Arab states, needs to reexamine its approach. In fact, what is probably needed at this stage is to flip the formula: it’s not peace that should pave the way to normalization but the other way around: normalization could pave the way to peace.
Instead of hiding a working relationship with Israel in the shadows, improved open diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and Arab countries could go a long way in improving the lives of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. That could have a positive influence on political talks and may strengthen Palestinian governance and government institutions. Since the linkage between normalization and final status talks would no longer be there, the combination of open relations and improved living conditions could create the political opportunity for the long-awaited, historic agreement to happen.
Meanwhile, the Israelis, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs, the Turks and the Egyptians can also talk about a security arrangement for the region. The reality of normalization, rather than the vague promise of it, could allow talks in this regard to acquire the serious edge they need, and could produce something credible within a reasonable period. Initially, this would be an open bloc against Iran which would not be invited to take part in this initial phase. That said, a seat at the table would be left for her provided her leaders moderate their regional behavior by allowing for reasonable compromises to be reached in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
To the extent that Russia has now become a regional power through its de facto expanded presence in Syria, the same consideration might be reserved for its leaders as well, very much on the same condition. Israel and the Sunni states have a great interest in common: regional stability. That interest would be far easier to pursue were relations between them open.
What’s clearly at stake at this stage is the future of the entire region and all of its peoples. It’s not just the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Christians, the Sunnis, the Shia, or this or that people or group. The question is how much more of the region is going to erupt in flames while the main powers do their usual dance around the issues. Given these stakes, it’s a mistake to make progress on one track conditional on progress on another. A much bolder move is required.
Indeed, it’s probably high time the Saudis used their considerable regional influence to put together a high-level Arab delegation to pay an official visit to Tel Aviv with a clear and direct offer of normalization. The delegation should invite Israel to take part in a regional security conference where a variety of current issues, including Palestinian statehood and the Syrian conflict, should be on the table. Open talks on parallel tracks could foster more positive developments than secret contacts and tentative symbolic steps. Time is of the essence these days, for we’re marking its passage with human lives lost, families displaced, homes and schools destroyed, and hopes dashed. For this, normalization should be a means of finding common grounds, not a reward for finding it.