Frankly Speaking: What will it take to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel?

Short Url
Updated 07 August 2023

Frankly Speaking: What will it take to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel?

Frankly Speaking: What will it take to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel?
  • Professor Yossi Mekelberg of Chatham House says Israel must meet the Arab Peace Initiative conditions for dream of Saudi normalization to materialize
  • Says Israeli PM wants to leave a legacy of peace with normalization deals while trying to appease ultra-rightwing political parties

DUBAI: Israel has to meet the conditions set out in the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Riyadh in 2002 for any dreams of normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia to materialize, Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, has said.

Appearing in the latest episode of “Frankly Speaking,” the weekly Arab News current affairs show, Mekelberg said that the Arab Peace Initiative is “as relevant today as it was 21 years ago” as a means of ending the conflict and achieving normalization.

Professor Yossi Mekelberg appears on the Frankly Speaking show hosted by Katie Jensen. (AN photo)

In a recent column for The New York Times, Thomas Friedman reckoned that a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal would force the ultra-rightwing elements in the cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to choose between annexing further Palestinian territory and accepting peace with the Arab and Islamic worlds.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist should know the significance of this potential development: it was he who revealed details of King Abdullah’s initiative in a famous column back in 2002.

The Arab Peace Initiative, proposed by Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah in 2002, was endorsed by the Arab League the same year at the Beirut Summit. It was re-endorsed at the 2007 and at the 2017 Arab League summits.

It offered normalization of Arab-Israeli relations in return for a full withdrawal by Israel from the occupied Arab territories, a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“I think it’s actually Saudi Arabia at the time that set the right tone for normalization with Israel — that it is something that is desirable, it’s something that is possible,” Mekelberg said.

“But at the same time, there is one condition, and the condition is that Israel and the Palestinians resolve all their outstanding issues.

“Just to remind the viewers that this was in 2002, it was at the height of the second intifada, when this (breakthrough) didn’t look possible. But it could have been a real breakthrough given the right approach by Riyadh.

“Israel actually rejected the offer that was translated into the whole declaration. I think this is as relevant today as it was relevant 21 years ago. And possibly that should be the direction.”

Saudi Arabia and several other states still want to see the Arab Peace Initiative implemented before they agree to consider formal normalization with Israel.

According to Friedman, any US-brokered deal that seeks to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel would require Washington to give Riyadh certain security guarantees as well. He said that the deal could fail to materialize if Democrats in the US Senate were put off by the anti-democratic turn taking place in Israel.

He urged US President Joe Biden and his administration to lean on their Israeli counterparts to rein in the government’s extreme agenda and its attempts to dismantle the Oslo peace process and the road map for a two-state solution.

US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC. (File/AFP)

“If I am interpreting what Friedman is saying, that it’s possible to change the mind of the very right wing, the Zionist religion party, people like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, and their supporters, that they will exchange the concessions that need to be made for peace, for this kind of normalization and acceptance in the region. If he is right and this is possible, why not? But I can’t see this happening,” Mekelberg said.

With the threat of a corruption trial looming, Mekelberg said, “Netanyahu can’t afford the government to fall … his main concern is to find a way to derail this corruption trial and prevent potentially going to jail.”

The US has been pushing for a Saudi-Israeli peace deal since President Biden’s visit to the Kingdom last year. Other high-level visits from National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken this year have also focused on normalization efforts.

But while Blinken told the AIPAC Conference in Washington in June that any normalization “should advance the well-being of the Palestinian people,” it is unclear whether the US will push for a freeze on settlements or a promise never to annex the West Bank.

Reports from Axios suggest that the White House wants an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel before the end of the year to give the Biden administration a major boost on the campaign trail ahead of the 2024 elections.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy Summit in Washington. (File/Reuters)

Mekelberg said that “in principle, Washington can have great influence on Israel because of the close relationship alliance between the two countries,” but said he did not expect Biden to use this “influence or power … during (an) election year.”

Ultimately, Mekelberg argued, normalization would only be successful if Netanyahu and his government decide that the corruption trial “is secondary to normalization with Saudi Arabia” and that it is “important for the future in Israel. This is ensuring Israel’s security and prosperity in the long run.”

However, he added it would require Israeli political parties to “climb down from a very, very tall tree,” which would be challenging.

Mekelberg said that while any normalization “is a cause of celebration,” efforts by other countries in the region to improve diplomatic relations with Israel in the past have not yielded the desired results.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of Bahrain and the UAE sign historic accords normalizing ties between the Jewish and Arab states at the White House. (File/AFP)

He called the Abraham Accords in 2020 between Israel and countries including the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco a “positive development,” but added: “It (still) left you with the Palestinian issue. And this was the elephant in the room and remains the elephant in the room.”

Mekelberg believes that Israel has used the Abraham Accords to “feel more secure” and “to take even more risk” against the Palestinians. He said the underlying feeling in Israel’s government was that “the whole world doesn’t care about the Palestinians anymore. We can get normalization for free.”

The prospect of normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel has stirred both anticipation and skepticism in recent weeks. Mekelberg believes that while diplomatic strides have been made, the road to full normalization remains rife with challenges.

While Netanyahu has long claimed normalization is a top priority for his government and one that could lead to the end of the Middle East conflict, Mekelberg raised concerns that Netanyahu is a “weak leader, held hostage” by his ultra-rightwing government.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. (File/AFP)

Saudi Arabia has consistently said that the success of a Saudi-Israeli normalization hinges on Israeli addressing the plight of the Palestinian people and creating a just solution they will accept.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman underscored this position in May at the Arab League Summit in Jeddah, saying that the “Palestinian issue was and remains the central issue for Arab countries, and it is at the top of the Kingdom’s priorities.”

But while Saudi Arabia continues to push for Palestinian statehood and, ultimately, peace in the Middle East, Mekelberg appears skeptical of Netanyahu’s priorities.

He said that Netanyahu is “dreaming in public about having trains going all the way to Jeddah and Riyadh, but he forgets that it comes with certain things, certain concessions that he has to make until this becomes a reality.”

While normalization between historic adversaries “is possible,” he sees no evidence that Israel’s ultra-rightwing government will make the concessions needed for the Palestinians that will satisfy the Kingdom.

Mekelberg added that “Israel is in a huge crisis,” destabilized by the weekly protests and judicial reforms that critics say threaten the country’s democracy.

Because of Netanyahu’s new judicial reforms, “hundreds of thousands of people are in the streets, and (at) the same time, settlements are expanding. This is the most ultra-right government in Israel. So, normalization, yes, but probably not now.”

The host of Frankly Speaking Katie Jensen. (AN photo)

There are major concerns about the new political reforms that the Knesset has passed recently, namely legislation abolishing the “reasonable doctrine.”

Until now, Israel’s Supreme Court has been able to intervene when it feels the government is acting recklessly. But last month, all 64 government members voted to abolish the law. It means Israel’s government can override any Supreme Court decisions with a small majority.

The controversial reforms have divided the country, with weekly mass demonstrations and clashes with police since the start of the year. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken part, with huge numbers arrested.

Mekelberg describes the judicial reforms as a “real danger” to Israel and accuses the current government of charting a path away from democracy.

Netanyahu, he added, is now stuck in a political quagmire where he wants to “leave a legacy ... of peace ...  with (the) normalization of Saudi Arabia (and Israel) and complete the Abraham Accords” while trying to appease his ultra-rightwing government, which is pushing for even harsher changes to the constitution.


Red Cross chief arrives in Gaza, says suffering ‘intolerable’

Red Cross chief arrives in Gaza, says suffering ‘intolerable’
Updated 04 December 2023

Red Cross chief arrives in Gaza, says suffering ‘intolerable’

Red Cross chief arrives in Gaza, says suffering ‘intolerable’

GENEVA: The Red Cross president arrived in war-torn Gaza on Monday, calling for the protection of civilians in the Palestinian territory, where she warned that human suffering was “intolerable.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross said ICRC President Mirjana Spoljaric’s travel to the region would happen in several stages with “a visit to Israel expected over the coming weeks.”

“I have arrived in Gaza, where people’s suffering is intolerable,” Spoljaric said on X, formerly Twitter.

“It is unacceptable that civilians have no safe place to go in Gaza, and with a military siege in place there is also no adequate humanitarian response currently possible,” she added in an ICRC statement.

Spoljaric, whose organization has faced criticism from both sides in the conflict for not providing adequate help to Israeli hostages held by Hamas and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, insisted that “all those deprived of liberty must be treated humanely.”

“The hostages must be released, and the ICRC must be allowed to safely visit them,” she said.

Her visit comes after full-scale fighting resumed Friday following the collapse of a week-long truce brokered by Qatar, the United States and Egypt, during which Israel and Hamas exchanged scores of hostages and prisoners.

“The last week provided a small degree of humanitarian respite, a positive glimpse of humanity that raised hopes around the world that a path to reduced suffering could now be found,” Spoljaric said in the statement.

“As a neutral actor, the ICRC stands ready to support further humanitarian agreements that reduce suffering and heartbreak.”

Netanyahu graft trial resumes in Israel in midst of Gaza war

Netanyahu graft trial resumes in Israel in midst of Gaza war
Updated 04 December 2023

Netanyahu graft trial resumes in Israel in midst of Gaza war

Netanyahu graft trial resumes in Israel in midst of Gaza war

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial resumed on Monday, despite the country’s continuing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The trial was suspended after the Palestinian militant group’s Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel in which 1,200 people were killed and 240 more kidnapped according to Israeli officials.

Netanyahu, leader of Israel’s right-wing Likud party, is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, allegations he denies.

Minister David Amsalem of Likud called the resumption of proceedings during the war “a disgrace.”

“War? Captives? ... No, no. The most important thing now is to renew Netanyahu’s trial,” said Amsalem on Sunday on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

Netanyahu and his allies have argued the accusations against him are politically motivated and had proposed a judicial overhaul that would have curbed some powers held by the courts.

The high-profile trial is expected to last several more months. An appeal process, if necessary, could take years.

In one of three cases the trial encompasses, prosecutors allege a plot between Netanyahu and the controlling shareholder of Israel’s Bezeq telecom giant to exchange regulatory favors for positive coverage on a news site owned by the firm. A second case relates to Netanyahu’s relationship with Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and other wealthy personalities.

According to prosecutors, between 2007 and 2016 Netanyahu allegedly received gifts valued at 700,000 shekels ($195,000), including boxes of cigars, bottles of champagne and jewelry, in exchange for financial or personal favors.

Netanyahu, who is Israel’s first sitting prime minister to stand trial, denies any wrongdoing, saying gifts were only accepted from friends and without him having asked for them.

In October 2019, his lawyers said they had received an expert legal opinion that concluded he had a right to accept gifts from close friends.

Egyptian Space Agency announces successful launch of MisrSat 2 satellite from China

Chinese and Egyptian engineers worked together to design and manufacture the satellite. (Photo: Xinhua news agency)
Chinese and Egyptian engineers worked together to design and manufacture the satellite. (Photo: Xinhua news agency)
Updated 9 min 28 sec ago

Egyptian Space Agency announces successful launch of MisrSat 2 satellite from China

Chinese and Egyptian engineers worked together to design and manufacture the satellite. (Photo: Xinhua news agency)
  • The Egyptian Space Agency was established in 2018 and aims to build and launch satellites from Egyptian territory

CAIRO: The Egyptian Space Agency has reported that the launch of the MisrSat 2 satellite from China was successful.

The agency said: “This (the launch) is in light of the strategic partnership between the governments of Egypt and China and the fruitful and constructive cooperation between the two friendly countries.”

A team of Egyptian engineers collaborated with Chinese experts in the satellite’s design and manufacture.

It was assembled and tested at the EGSA’s Satellite Assembly, Integration, and Testing Center.

The site, the largest of its kind in Africa and the Middle East, was established within the framework of the strategic partnership between the two countries.

The satellite forms part of Egypt’s sustainable development goals by utilizing space technology to enhance vital areas, including agriculture, the exploration of mineral resources, identification of surface water sources, and the study of the impact of climate change on the environment.

The agency said the work contributed to supporting the Egyptian economy as well as enhancing the country’s pioneering role by providing training programs aimed at qualifying specialized personnel on the African continent and the Middle East, while supplying spatial data.

It added that the launch of the MisrSat 2 was a milestone in Egyptian-Chinese cooperation, especially in the field of space technology.

The Egyptian Space Agency was established in 2018 and aims to build and launch satellites from Egyptian territory.


Tension mounts on southern front as Lebanon’s Hamas launches ‘resistance project’

Tension mounts on southern front as Lebanon’s Hamas launches ‘resistance project’
Updated 04 December 2023

Tension mounts on southern front as Lebanon’s Hamas launches ‘resistance project’

Tension mounts on southern front as Lebanon’s Hamas launches ‘resistance project’
  • Hezbollah now capable of striking deep into Israel, says security source 

BEIRUT: Hostilities escalated on Monday on the southern front of Lebanon between Hezbollah and the Israeli army.

A preliminary report said that a Syrian national was injured as a result of Israeli shelling targeting the Al-Wazzani border village. Avichay Adraee, the Israeli army spokesperson, said that “three soldiers were slightly injured” after Hezbollah had targeted the Israeli military outpost of Shtula.

In parallel with the mounting confrontations in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah launched 20 missiles from southern Lebanon toward the Western Galilee, between the Shomera and Mattat settlements. The Israeli army said that “the missiles landed in open areas and that its air force targeted military infrastructure for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.”

Speaking on behalf of Hezbollah, Nabil Kaouk, a member of the group’s central council, said: “We will harshly respond to any attack against civilians in the south, and we will not let any attack against any civilian in Lebanon pass without a harsh and severe response.”

Kaouk revealed that during the truce “pressure was exerted on Hezbollah to avoid a new confrontation, as they want Israel to wage war on Gaza without the support of southern Lebanon.”

He claimed that Israel “is unable to win in Gaza or in south Lebanon, and cannot protect its settlers and ships in the Gulf and Red Sea.”

He added: “Israel is incapable of rescuing the hostages, as they were freed through negotiation only.”

According to Hezbollah’s statements, the militant group’s hostilities on the southern border had targeted on Monday morning “a gathering of the Israeli occupation soldiers in the Shtula Forest, the Al-Raheb outpost, the Al-Baghdadi outpost, and the Rowaysat Al-Alam outpost in the Kfarchouba Hills and the Shebaa Farms.”

The Israeli army activated the Iron Dome after a series of missiles were launched from the central part of southern Lebanon toward Israeli outposts.

Israel’s Channel 12 announced that “an anti-armor missile was launched toward the Misgav Am region in the Upper Galilee and that three soldiers were slightly injured after rockets were fired.”

Israeli ground and air shelling targeted the outskirts of southern villages including Naqoura, Aayta Al-Shaab, Labbouneh, Odaisseh, Kfarkila and Kfarchouba, using burning phosphorus missiles.

Israeli reconnaissance planes were seen flying at low altitude over the western and central parts of southern Lebanon, namely Naqoura, Alma Al-Shaab, Marwahin and Al-Dahira. They also reached the southern border villages of Aayta Al-Shaab, Rmaych and Yaroun. More Israeli reconnaissance planes were also seen over Rachaya and the eastern slopes of the Al-Sheikh Mountain, reaching Deir Al-Ashayer on the Lebanese–Syrian borders. They were also spotted hovering over Tripoli in northern Lebanon on Sunday.

On Sunday, Hezbollah targeted the Israeli Beit Hillel military outpost with guided missiles, directly hitting an M113 personnel carrier and injuring 11 members of the outpost.

A security source commented on Hezbollah’s attack, saying: “This escalation demonstrates Hezbollah’s capability to move more freely along the southern border.”

The source added: “Hezbollah is now capable of targeting deeper spots in Israel rather than hitting border areas. It is also using guided missiles increasingly.”

Sheikh Naim Kassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, said on Sunday that the group “is convinced that it will defeat Israel, and we are not in a rush to do so.”

Meanwhile, the Lebanese branch of Hamas announced on Monday “the establishment and launching of the Vanguards of Al-Aqsa Flood.”

It called on “young people and men in Lebanon and Palestine to join this movement to resist the occupation force through available and legitimate means, as a way to support the steadfastness and resistance of our Palestinian people.”

At the beginning of the confrontation in October, many Lebanese and Palestinian groups took part in the hostilities taking place on the Lebanese border, through armed members from the Al-Fajr forces — the military wing of the Islamic group — as well as through the military wings of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. These groups, however, have retreated, leaving Hezbollah alone to fight from the Lebanese border.

The Sayydet Al-Jabal gathering, which opposes Hezbollah, said in a statement on Monday that “Lebanon doesn’t want to enter a new war decided by someone else.”

The party, which includes a number of politicians and public activists, believes that Hezbollah has two options: “Either it returns to Lebanon and abides by the Lebanese terms — which are the terms stipulated in the Constitution, the Taif Agreement, and the resolutions of international legitimacy 1559, 1701, and 1680 — or it remains a representative of Iran until the latter abandons it the moment it faces a real threat, similar to what it did to Hamas in the last Gaza war.”

Yemen’s govt warns of massive Houthi strikes in Shabwa, Marib

Yemen’s govt warns of massive Houthi strikes in Shabwa, Marib
Updated 04 December 2023

Yemen’s govt warns of massive Houthi strikes in Shabwa, Marib

Yemen’s govt warns of massive Houthi strikes in Shabwa, Marib
  • Yemeni authorities fear the situation may be about to deteriorate as the Houthis gather militants and military equipment in Marib, Shabwa, and Taiz
  • Iran-backed militant group vows to target American naval ships in Red Sea

AL-MUKALLA: Yemen’s internationally recognized government has warned that the Houthis are planning major offensives in two Yemeni regions, action that may derail peace talks and plunge the country back into turmoil.

Muammar Al-Eryani, Yemen’s information minister, accused the Iran-backed Houthis of mobilizing major military forces in the southern province of Shabwa and the central province of Marib in recent weeks.

And he noted that the militia group planned to attack Marib from the south, east, and north, as well as launch another simultaneous attack on government-controlled Bayan, Ain, Ouslen, and other areas in Shabwa.

Al-Eryani pointed out that such an attack would “undermine peace efforts, re-emerge the country in conflict, and exacerbate the deteriorating humanitarian crisis.”

Fighting has mostly stopped on all fronts throughout the nation after a UN-brokered truce came into force in April 2022.

But Yemeni authorities fear the situation may be about to deteriorate as the Houthis gathered militants and military equipment in Marib, Shabwa, and Taiz.

The Houthis have used popular outrage over continued Israeli attacks on Gaza to begin military training and collect soldiers outside government-controlled cities under the guise of preparing to battle the Israelis.

Al-Eryani urged the international community to label the Houthis as terrorists, impose penalties on their leaders, freeze their assets, bar them from traveling, and limit the militia’s income sources.

In a post on X, the minister said: “The international community, the United Nations, and its special envoy are called upon to issue a clear condemnation of these escalatory steps that confirm the Houthi militia’s disregard for de-escalation efforts.”

The warning came after the Yemeni army revealed on Sunday that its forces had killed and wounded several Houthis after foiling raids on government-controlled territory south of Marib.

The Houthis also organized a funeral procession in Sanaa on Sunday for 15 officers of various military grades killed in combat with government troops near the country’s western coastline on the Red Sea and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Houthis threatened to target American naval ships in the Red Sea only a day after launching drone and missile assaults on commercial vessels in the waters.

On a US vow to respond to strikes, Supreme Political Council member, Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, said that America had “no right” to deploy ships in the Red Sea.

In a post on X, Al-Houthi said: “The Americans do not have a right in the Red Sea that allows them to say that they retain the right to respond.”

Washington said on Monday it would consult with its partners and allies on how to react to Houthi attacks on ships after the group fired four missiles and drones at commercial vessels operating in international waters in the Red Sea.

In a post on X, the US Central Command said: “These attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security.

“They have jeopardized the lives of international crews representing multiple countries around the world,” it added.