A war that ends the Saudi-Israel ‘normalisation’ process

Saudi Arabia has recognised that peace and stability in the region are not possible without Palestinian interests being addressed

Updated - October 14, 2023 10:25 am IST

Published - October 14, 2023 12:08 am IST

‘The Gaza war has once again placed the Palestinian issue at the centre of West Asian politics’

‘The Gaza war has once again placed the Palestinian issue at the centre of West Asian politics’ | Photo Credit: AFP

As Hamas launched its lethal attacks on Israel on October 7, the assault has firmly overturned Israeli efforts, supported by the United States, to promote a normalisation of relations with Arab states without conceding anything to the Palestinians. Specifically, the Gaza war has dealt a mortal blow to the efforts for Saudi Arabia to normalise ties with Israel.

On September 22, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was at his arrogant and triumphalist best as he waved two maps to embellish his speech at the United Nations General Assembly: one depicted an isolated Israel in 1948, while the other showed Arab neighbours that now had peace agreements with Israel — Egypt, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Jordan. It also showed all the occupied Palestinian territories — the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem — as integral parts of Israel. Mr. Netanyahu specifically applauded the normalisation process with Saudi Arabia under U.S. auspices, and insisted that the Palestinians should have no veto over the process.

U.S.-backed diplomacy

Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks reflected the flurry of diplomatic activity over the last few months between Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh as U.S. officials pushed for diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, possibly within this year. American and Israeli officials publicly affirmed that the broad contours of the agreement have been finalised. Meanwhile, two Israeli Ministers visited Saudi Arabia for international conferences, signifying increasing bonhomie between the two countries.

The normalisation deal had hinged on three conditions that the kingdom had placed before the U.S.: U.S. approval for a civilian nuclear programme that provides for uranium enrichment within the country; an “iron-clad” U.S. security guarantee for the country, and sales of advanced weapons. The Americans were said to be insisting that Saudi Arabia back U.S. interests on oil prices, dilute its political, military and technological ties with China and deepen strategic engagement with the U.S.

Saudi Arabia’s three conditions for normalisation were contentious in Israel and the U.S. Several U.S. politicians opposed the idea of giving security guarantees to an authoritarian state. They also warned the U.S. President against Saudi Arabia developing its own nuclear programme, believing that it poses an unacceptable proliferation risk — a concern shared in Israel as well. There were also obstacles to the U.S. sales of advanced weapons, largely due to Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record at home and in Yemen. Finally, there were concerns about Saudi insistence that arms supplies be accompanied by a transfer of technology to develop its arms industry. Despite these obstacles, the U.S. was confident the deal would go through.

Palestinian interests and concerns did not figure in these normalisation discussions. Given the extremist political coalition that Mr. Netanyahu heads, there was no interest in Israel to give even lip service to Palestinian aspirations for a sovereign and viable state or accept East Jerusalem as the capital of that state. In fact, Mr. Netanyahu was not even willing to promise freezing settlements in the West Bank, deferring annexation, or dismantling illegal outposts.

At that time, hundreds of Israel’s religious zealots, backed by Mr. Netanyahu’s Ministers, made provocative incursions into the Al-Aqsa complex, while the settlers in the West Bank increased violence against their Palestinian neighbours, usually with the support of the security forces.

Saudi-Iran ties

The Gaza war has once again placed the Palestinian issue at the centre of West Asian politics. Some writers are blaming Iran, arguing that the Islamic Republic has instigated the Hamas attacks to block Saudi Arabia’s normalisation initiative with Israel. This argument has little credibility. Saudi-Iran ties have already been normalised under Chinese mediation: embassies have been re-opened in both capitals, high-level visits have been exchanged and economic cooperation is being expanded.

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Now, following the Hamas attacks, the kingdom has recognised that peace and stability in the region are not possible without Palestinian interests being addressed. In an official statement, the Saudi Foreign Office has recalled the kingdom’s “repeated warnings of the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights and the repetition of systematic provocations of its sanctities”. This statement is referring to the abuses countenanced by the Netanyahu government — desecration of the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex and settlement expansion and settler violence in the West Bank. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has now asserted that the kingdom will “stand by the Palestinian people to achieve their legitimate rights to a decent life, achieve their hopes and aspirations, and achieve just and lasting peace”.

Palestinian interests in focus

Again, the Saudis have abandoned recourse to insincere verbal assurances to the Palestinians that were under consideration during the normalisation negotiations. The search now is for concrete action to serve Palestinian interests, As the Saudi journalist, Faisal Abbas, has written: “… the international community must act now to activate a credible peace plan that enables a two-state solution”.

Looking ahead, it has been obvious over the last three years that the kingdom had shrugged off the American yoke and was pursuing its foreign policy engagements in terms of its own interests, without any U.S. involvement. The kingdom rejects the U.S. interest in building an anti-China coalition globally and an anti-Iran cabal regionally.

Again, regardless of the U.S.’s wishes there is no question of Saudi Arabia accommodating the Americans on oil prices or diluting its comprehensive strategic ties with China. They exemplify its assertion of strategic autonomy and are an integral part of its quest for diverse, multifaceted, and substantial ties across Asia. Promoting the Palestinian cause will now form an important part of this foreign policy approach.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat

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