To normalize or not to normalize with Israel?

To normalize or not to normalize with Israel?

To normalize or not to normalize with Israel?
Smoke rises from Gaza amid Israeli bombardment on June 6, 2024. (REUTERS)
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The question of the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel has been headline news since President Joe Biden visited the Kingdom in July 2022. The main purpose of this visit was to convince Riyadh to increase its oil production to lower global oil prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of that year. However, the OPEC+ group, which is led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, decreased oil production by 2 million barrels following his visit in order to stabilize prices.

In response, the Biden administration shifted to a new strategy, reportedly offering the Kingdom a NATO-like defense pact and a civilian nuclear plant in exchange for Riyadh limiting its cooperation with China and Russia and normalizing its relations with Israel. The Biden administration believes that the US Congress would not agree to a pact with the Kingdom that includes security commitments, the transferring of high-tech military equipment and giving the Kingdom a nuclear plant capable of enriching uranium unless it included the normalization component.

This background is important, as it provides context and the origin of the idea of Saudi normalization with Israel. Understanding the difficulties of making peace with an extremist government in Israel, whose concern is to appropriate and annex Palestinian lands, the Kingdom did not initially seek normalization with Israel. However, it was offered as part of a wider pact with the US, which the Kingdom did not reject, provided that Israel was willing to end its occupation of Palestinian land and accept the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Historically, Saudi Arabia has never rejected the idea of normalizing relations with Israel. The Kingdom supported the Palestinians when they joined the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and when they signed the Oslo Accords. When the Second Intifada erupted following the failure of the 2000 Camp David Summit, it was the Kingdom that proposed the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. This stated that 57 Arab and Muslim countries were willing to normalize relations with Israel should the latter agree to withdraw from the Palestinian and Arab lands it occupied in 1967.

While the world hailed the Kingdom for its genuine proposal for peace, Israel chose to ignore it and instead erected a separation wall in the West Bank, appropriating almost 10 percent of Palestinian lands, and unilaterally disengaged from Gaza. In other words, it was Israel that turned its back on the Arab and Muslim countries’ offer of normalization.

That being stated, for the last 18 months, since the US started negotiations with the Kingdom about a defense pact that includes normalization with Israel, the Biden administration’s problem was not with the Kingdom. Rather, it was with the Israeli government, which has refused to accept the principles of a two-state solution and land for peace. Israel wants economic peace alone, thus avoiding the essential issues underlying the conflict with the Palestinians.

The Israelis are not willing to commit themselves to ceasing the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem or to establish a definitive timeframe for resolving the various aspects of the conflict, as outlined by UN Security Council resolutions and international law. One Israeli official explicitly stated: “The Americans are not doing Israel a favor; Israel will do them a favor if they reach an agreement with Saudi Arabia because it will try to enhance the chances of Republicans voting in favor of it.” The official added: “We have nothing to give the Palestinians ... we will not freeze the settlements, not even for one second.”

In other words, Israel is torpedoing US efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as part of a broader agreement between the Kingdom and the US, confirming Biden’s conclusion that the current Israeli government is “one of the most extreme” he has ever seen.

While the world hailed the Kingdom for its genuine proposal for peace, Israel chose to ignore it

Dr. Turki Faisal Al-Rasheed

Then came the events of Oct. 7, 2023, which reinforced the Kingdom’s view that normalization with Israel should be a consequence of the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, not a precursor to it. This position has been expressed repeatedly by Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, who stated in February, following a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, that: “The Kingdom has communicated its firm position to the US administration that there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognized on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

This position was reiterated at the joint Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh last November, when the region’s leaders called for the launch of “a genuine and serious political process to achieve permanent and comprehensive peace, in accordance with the recognized international references.” And at the Arab League Summit in Bahrain this month, member states expressed their support for the Palestinian Authority’s call to “take irreversible steps to implement the two-state solution in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative and the resolutions of international legitimacy.”

Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, last week expressed dismay that the Israeli government had “rejected a full-fledged offer of peace from Saudi Arabia,” which he viewed as a significant development considering Saudi Arabia’s position as “the leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds.” He added in a post on X: “Wake up Israel! Your government is leading you into ever greater isolation and ruin.”

Indyk is right. He should add that Israel has become a moral and security burden for the US and its Western allies. It has lost its deterrence; after more than seven months of its war on Gaza, it is unable to declare victory. It is incapable of protecting its northern borders and it needed the US, the UK and France for protection last month during its first direct confrontation with Iran.

Israel has been accused of carrying out a genocide and the International Criminal Court will most likely issue arrest warrants for its leaders on charges of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. On the other hand, the Palestinians are gaining the hearts and minds of people worldwide and more countries are recognizing their right to an independent state.

Israel is no longer in a position to turn its back on the Kingdom’s call for genuine peace based on the principles laid out in the 2002 Arab Peace initiative. Yet, the extremist government that rules Israel is still refusing to acknowledge the new realities that make it impossible to achieve peace during the first term of the Biden administration.

Dr. Turki Faisal Al-Rasheed is an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Department of Biosystems Engineering. He is the author of “Agricultural Development Strategies: The Saudi Experience.”


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