A deal cut short

Ahmed Mustafa , Saturday 27 Jan 2024

US efforts to broker a Saudi-Israeli deal come against Israel stopping its war on Gaza.

A deal cut short


Washington is pushing for a Saudi-Israeli normalisation deal for when the war in Gaza ends. This has seen more headlines than news of continued massacres in Gaza. Yet, thanks to the Netanyahu coalition government’s hardline position, that diplomatic project doesn’t seem likely to succeed.

In his latest comments, after a phone call with Netanyahu a few days ago, President Joe Biden reiterated that the US is against ending the war in Gaza. He even tried to accommodate the Israeli opposition to the two-state solution, which Netanyahu stressed last week.

American officials have been shuttling between Israel and Saudi Arabia since the start of the year. Earlier in January, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham visited Israel and Saudi Arabia, meeting Netanyahu and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. Another visit by six senators from the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee led by Committee Chair, Democratic Senator Mark Warner, visited Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for his part, visited both Saudi Arabia and Israel, along with Turkey, Qatar, the UAE and Jordan. Though the official rhetoric is that these visits are aimed at “finding ways to end the conflict,” the reality seems to be that they focused on revitalising American diplomacy to urge Saudi Arabia to normalise relations with Israel following the 2020 Abraham Accords involving Bahrain, the UAE and Morocco. Blinken’s decision to skip Cairo on his last tour was seen by some analysts as further proof that ongoing diplomatic efforts have nothing to do with ending the war in Gaza or alleviating the brutality Israel is inflicting on Palestinians.

Media hype about the so-called day-after arrangements increased following Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan telling a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos that his country is willing to recognise Israel if a comprehensive agreement was reached that included statehood for the Palestinians. He added, “we agree that regional peace includes peace for Israel, but that could only happen through peace for the Palestinians through a Palestinian state.”

Also in Davos, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington is focused on securing an agreement that would lead to Saudi Arabia normalising relations with Israel as part of its plans for the post-war era. “Our approach is and remains focused on moving towards greater integration and stability in the region,” he added.

Last week, the Financial Times published a report about a new Arab plan in the making for a comprehensive peace with Israel, quoting a senior Arab official it didn’t name. “Arab states are working on an initiative to secure a ceasefire and the release of hostages in Gaza as part of a broader plan that could offer Israel a normalisation of relations if it agrees to ‘irreversible’ steps towards the creation of a Palestinian state,” the report said. The plan is being discussed with both the Americans and Europeans according to that senior official.

Less than 24 hours after that report, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated in a press conference his refusal of a Palestinian state, once again hurling the much touted two-state solution into the abyss. He repeated his vow to continue the war on Gaza until “goals are achieved,” which means a continued offensive for many months to come.

The day-after rhetoric about reviving efforts to normalise relations with Saudi Arabia took some heat off the media coverage of daily massacres and destruction in Gaza. It also showed the Americans working on tempting Netanyahu to ease the military aggression in return for wider arrangements centring on Saudi normalisation.

Many analysts are sceptical of that approach succeeding. As Oxford Universty’s Andrew Hammond told Al- Ahram Weekly, “it will take a lot of effort by the Americans to get this to work. The first problem is that Netanyahu not only has decided to publicly challenge the Biden administration by saying he won’t allow a Palestinian state, he doesn’t want to end the war. Then, after that, how do you organise a state in a devastated territory? The only option will be to pretend that Hamas as a political entity doesn’t exist there when in reality it still will.”

It is not clear if the Saudis are in a rush to take the stance they took more than two decades ago. In 2002, the Arab summit in Beirut launched a Saudi-led Arab peace initiative that was ignored by Israel. The main theme of the initiative was similar to what is being talked about now: full recognition and normalisation for a two-state solution. Will the Saudis and other Gulf countries opt for such a plan with no assurances that the same thing won’t happen again? This time there might be a caveat. “The people running the ministries [in Gaza] can be described as part of the Palestinian Authority rather than Hamas. But in the West Bank, the settlers and army will keep attacking Palestinians in all zones. So there’s no hope unless a new government is formed in Israel.”

The Israelis are keen on normalising relations with Saudi Arabia, but are not willing to link that to stopping the war on Gaza or seriously considering a Palestinian state. They see they can win the Saudis as partners against Iran. Last week Eli Cohen, Israel’s former foreign minister and present energy minister told the daily Jerusalem Post: “The central reason that Saudi Arabia wants to make a deal with Israel is to receive a security umbrella from the United States against Iran and [its proxy] terror groups”. He added, “the Saudis have a greater interest in making peace, even more than Israel does, because it needs that protection.”

Yet that protection proved useless in 2019 when Aramco facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia were hit by missiles and drones, halting almost half of Saudi oil production. The Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen claimed responsibility, and Riyadh blamed Tehran. The Donald Trump administration at the time didn’t do as much by way of retaliation as the Gulf state had hoped. But now that Israel is actively targeting Iranians and their proxy groups in the region, there might be a different story.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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