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

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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.


Israel reopens Gaza crossing to Palestinian workers

Israel reopens Gaza crossing to Palestinian workers
Updated 56 min ago

Israel reopens Gaza crossing to Palestinian workers

Israel reopens Gaza crossing to Palestinian workers
  • The Israeli authorities had initially closed the Erez crossing, the only gateway for Palestinian pedestrians from the Gaza Strip, for the Jewish new year holiday on September 15

Erez: Israel said it reopened Thursday a key crossing with Gaza to Palestinian workers after shutting it during violent protests that saw the army launch strikes targeting Hamas military posts.
The Israeli authorities had initially closed the Erez crossing, the only gateway for Palestinian pedestrians from the Gaza Strip, for the Jewish new year holiday on September 15.
But they extended the closure citing security reasons following daily demonstrations along the border that left several protesters dead and injured in clashes with Israeli soldiers.
While patients seeking medical treatment and foreigners had been allowed to use the crossing, thousands of Palestinian workers from the coastal enclave had been banned from entering Israel.
On Wednesday evening COGAT, the Israeli defense body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs, said the crossing would reopen for workers from Thursday morning.
The Palestinian civilian affairs ministry confirmed the crossing had reopened.
An AFP correspondent saw thousands of Palestinians waiting at the terminal to enter Israel.
Israel has issued work permits to some 18,500 Gazans, COGAT said last week.
The Gaza Strip, home to some 2.3 million Palestinians, had been rocked by violent protests in the past two weeks.
Protesters had often resorted to burning tires, throwing stones and petrol bombs at Israeli troops, who have responded with tear gas and live bullets.
The Israeli army had also resorted to drone strikes targeting military sites of the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the enclave.
Since September 13, seven Palestinians have been killed and more than 100 wounded in the violence in Gaza, according to figures from the Hamas-controlled health ministry.
Israel has imposed an air, land and sea blockade on Gaza since Hamas seized the Palestinian territory in 2007.
Armed conflict sporadically erupts between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip.
In May, an exchange of Israeli air strikes and Gaza rocket fire resulted in the deaths of 34 Palestinians and one Israeli.

‘Yesterday there was a wedding and happiness … now we bury them’

‘Yesterday there was a wedding and happiness … now we bury them’
Updated 28 September 2023

‘Yesterday there was a wedding and happiness … now we bury them’

‘Yesterday there was a wedding and happiness … now we bury them’
  • Grief in Iraqi town after 113 die in wedding inferno
  • 9 arrested, warrants issued for hall owners

JEDDAH: Nine people were arrested on Wednesday and warrants were issued for a further four after more than 100 people died when a fire ripped through a packed wedding hall in northern Iraq.

Fire fighters searched the charred remains of the building in Qaraqosh, also known as Hamdaniya, onWednesday morning and bereaved relatives gathered outside a morgue in the nearby city of Mosul, wailing in distress.
“This was not a wedding. This was hell,” said Mariam Khedr as she waited for officials to return the bodies of her daughter Rana Yakoub, 27, and three young grandchildren, the youngest aged just eight months.
Survivors said the fire began about an hour into the wedding celebration when flares ignited a ceiling decoration as the bride and groom danced. Nineveh province Deputy Governor Hassan Al-Allaf said 113 people had been confirmed dead.

“We saw the fire pulsating, coming out of the hall. Those who managed got out and those who didn’t got stuck,” said survivor Imad Yohana, 34.
Outside the morgue, one woman said: “I lost my daughter, her husband and their three-year-old. They were all burned. My heart is burning.”

A man called Youssef stood near by with burns covering his hands and face. He said he had not been able to see anything when the fire began and the power cut out. He had grabbed his three-year-old grandson and managed to escape. But his wife, Bashra Mansour, did not make it. People in black streamed towards the cemetery in Qaraqosh on Wednesday as a line of pickup trucks drove past carrying the dead. Hundreds gathered, many sobbing, as coffins were carried at shoulder height, some shrouded in white, one with a floral cloth, before being lowered into their graves.
Most residents of Qaraqosh, which is mostly Christian but also home to some of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, fled the town when Daesh seized it in 2014. But they returned after the group was ousted in 2017.
“Yesterday there was a wedding and happiness. Now we are preparing their burial,” said deacon Hani al-Kasmousa at Mar Youhanna church, where the wedding service took place on Tuesday before the evening celebration.
People who survived the blaze said the hall appeared poorly equipped for it, with no visible fire extinguishers and few exits. Iraq’s Interior Ministry said nine wedding hall staff had been arrested and it had issued arrest warrants for the four owners.

Arab family of five shot dead as crime rates in Israel soar

Arab family of five shot dead as crime rates in Israel soar
Updated 28 September 2023

Arab family of five shot dead as crime rates in Israel soar

Arab family of five shot dead as crime rates in Israel soar
  • Arab mayors have accused the government and police of deliberately neglecting their communities and of enabling criminals to act with impunity

JERUSALEM: Five members of an Arab family were shot dead in their home in Israel, police said on Wednesday, in the latest in a wave of crime-related killings in Israel’s Arab communities that has reached a new peak this year.
The shooting of the five, including a woman and two teenagers, in the northern town of Basmat Tab’un followed a separate incident in which a 50-year-old man was killed earlier on Wednesday.
More than 180 Arab citizens in Israel have been killed in crime-related violence since January — a seven-year high — in a spate of killings that have continued unchecked, drawing accusations that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist government was ignoring the bloodshed.
“Israel has the abilities, the Israeli government understands what needs to be done, everybody understands what needs to be done, there simply is no will and no leadership,” said Mansour Abbas, leader of one of the parties that represent Israel’s Arab minority.
Arab mayors have accused the government and police of deliberately neglecting their communities and of enabling criminals to act with impunity. They have refused to work with the far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has past convictions of support for terrorism and anti-Arab incitement, and have demanded that Netanyahu intervene instead.
With Israel facing its worst political crisis in decades, over Netanyahu’s drive to push through divisive changes to the judiciary, Arab citizens say the collapse of personal safety in their communities must receive more government attention.
Ben-Gvir, who did not immediately comment on Wednesday’s incident, has rejected accusations of inaction. He has said fighting crime is high on his agenda and that police have stepped up crime-busting activity, including the seizure of weapons and funds from criminal groups.
“As police, we will do everything to get to the killers,” police spokesman Eli Levi told reporters at the scene of Wednesday’s crime.
Arab citizens, most of whom are descendants of Palestinians who remained in Israel during the mass exodus of refugees in the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation, make up about a fifth of the country’s population.
They have for decades faced high poverty rates, poorly funded schools and overcrowded towns lacking services and say they are treated as second-class citizens compared with Jewish Israelis.

Lebanese military court sentences Daesh official to 160 years in prison

Lebanese military court sentences Daesh official to 160 years in prison
Updated 27 September 2023

Lebanese military court sentences Daesh official to 160 years in prison

Lebanese military court sentences Daesh official to 160 years in prison
  • Imad Yassin, a Palestinian in his 50s, confessed to all 11 charges against him

BEIRUT: Lebanese military court has sentenced an official with the extremist Daesh group to 160 years in prison for carrying out deadly attacks against security forces and planning others targeting government buildings and crowded civilian areas, judicial officials said Wednesday.

The officials said Imad Yassin, a Palestinian in his 50s, confessed to all 11 charges against him, including joining a “terrorist organization,” committing crimes in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp of Ein El-Hilweh, shooting at Lebanese soldiers, and transporting weapons and munitions for militant groups.

Yassin, also known as Imad Akl, said he was planning several other attacks, including blowing up two main power stations, the headquarters of a major local television station in Beirut, killing a leading politician, as well as planning attacks on hotels north of Beirut, the officials said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Before joining Daesh, Yassin was a member of other militant groups, including Al-Qaeda-linked Jund Al-Sham, which is still active in Ein El-Hilweh. In later years, he became Daesh’s top official in the camp.

Yassin was detained in Ein El-Hilweh, near the port city of Sidon, six years ago and has been held since. The total 11 sentences that he received count to up to 160 years in prison, the officials said.

The session during which he was sentenced started on Monday night and lasted until the early hours of Tuesday. 

At the height of its rise in Iraq and Syria in 2014, Daesh claimed responsibility for deadly attacks in different parts of Lebanon that left scores of people dead.

Morocco aims to become key player in green hydrogen

Morocco aims to become key player in green hydrogen
Updated 27 September 2023

Morocco aims to become key player in green hydrogen

Morocco aims to become key player in green hydrogen

RABAT: Morocco has voiced ambitious plans to become North Africa’s top player in the emerging “green hydrogen” sector, with plans to export the clean-burning fuel to Europe.

Hydrogen is seen as a clean energy source that can help the world phase out fossil fuels and reduce atmospheric carbon emissions in the battle to slow global warming.

Morocco, which already runs large solar power plants, also hopes to harness green hydrogen — the kind made without burning fossil fuels — for its sizeable fertilizer sector.

Around 1.5 million acres of public land — nearly the size of Kuwait — have been set aside for green hydrogen and ammonia plants, the economy ministry says.

King Mohammed VI has hailed a national green hydrogen plan dubbed l’Offre Maroc (the Moroccan Offer) and called for its “rapid and qualitative implementation.”

Speaking in July, before the country’s earthquake disaster, he said Morocco must take advantage of “the projects supported by international investors in this promising sector.”

Local media have reported about investment plans by Australian, British, French, German and Indian companies.

Hydrogen can be extracted from water by passing a strong electrical current through it.

This separates the hydrogen from the oxygen, a process called electrolysis.

If the power used is clean — such as solar or wind — the fuel is called “green hydrogen,” which is itself emission-free when burnt.

But there are problems: Hydrogen is highly explosive and hard to store and transport. This has set back hydrogen fuel cell cars in the race against electric vehicles using lithium-ion batteries.

However, experts say green hydrogen also has a big role to play in decarbonizing energy-intensive industries that cannot easily be electrified such as steel, cement and chemicals.

Powering blast furnaces with hydrogen, for example, offers the promise of making “green steel.”

Hydrogen can also be converted into ammonia, to store the energy or as a major input in synthetic fertilizers. Morocco is already a major player in the global fertilizer market, thanks mainly to its immense phosphate reserves.

It profited after fertilizer shortages sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent prices up to 1,000 euros ($1,060) per ton.

Morocco’s state Phosphate Office has announced plans to quickly produce a million tons of “green ammonia” from green hydrogen and triple the amount by 2032.

Analysts caution that Morocco still has some way to go with its ambitious green fertilizer plans.

The sector is “embryonic and the large global projects will not see the light of day until three to five years from now,” said Samir Rachidi, director of the Moroccan research institute IRESEN.

Morocco’s advantage is that it has already bet heavily on clean energy over the past 15 years.

Solar, wind and other clean energy make up 38 percent of production, and the goal is to reach 52 percent by 2030.

For now green hydrogen is more expensive than the highly polluting “brown hydrogen” made using coal or “grey hydrogen” produced from natural gas.

The goal is to keep green hydrogen production below $1-$2 per kilogram, Ahmed Reda Chami, president of the Economic, Social and Environmental Counsel, told the weekly La Vie Eco.