Saudi standstill

Ahmed Mustafa , Tuesday 13 Feb 2024

Riyadh has reaffirmed its position that there will be no diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv before recognition of a Palestinian state, reports Ahmed Mustafa

Saudi standstill


Just a couple of days after meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the bombardment of Rafah in the Gaza Strip where more than a million Palestinians had taken refuge. Israel has been attacking Gaza for five months, killing tens of thousands of Palestinians and forcing hundreds of thousands to evacuate their neighborhoods.

Just before the Rafah attack, Saudi Arabia hosted a meeting of Arab Foreign ministers that called for the end of war on Gaza and warned against pushing Palestinians out of their territories. The meeting followed Blinken’s visit to Saudi Arabia in the course of his tour of the region.

The US administration has been pushing for a Saudi-Israeli deal for some time. When the Gaza war started in early October, talks surrounding normalisation stalled. In his many tours of the region, Blinken was keen to restart talks of a deal with Saudi Arabia, but the daily atrocities committed by Israel in Gaza were making this difficult.

Last week, he heard it plainly from Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, as he admitted. Blinken said that Bin Salman had “reiterated Saudi Arabia’s strong interest in pursuing” normalisation. Then he followed, “but he also made clear what he had said to me before, which is that in order to do that two things are required: an end to the conflict in Gaza and a clear, credible, time-bound path to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

The Saudi position on an American-sponsored deal with Israel is now more distant than it was in September. The US had been hoping that a deal could be reached with just a promise to start negotiations towards the two-state solution. The latest official position from Saudi Arabia raised the bar for conditions required to engage in normalisation.

After Blinken’s visit, the Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a statement carried by the official news agency which confirmed that position: “The Kingdom (of Saudi Arabia) has communicated its firm position to the US administration that there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognised on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.” It repeated “its call to the permanent members of the UN Security Council that have not yet recognised the Palestinian state to expedite the recognition of the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

On the other hand, Israel is not willing to accept calls for stopping the war on Gaza even for a hostage-exchange truce. American President Joe Biden is no fan of Netanyahu, but he is fully committed to supporting Israel’s war on the Palestinians. The Wall Street Journal coverage of Blinken’s Middle East visit noted that “for the Biden administration, the US presidential race has added a new urgency to the normalisation effort, with the White House eager for a foreign policy achievement to outdo that of his likely opponent, former president Donald Trump, whose administration forged similar diplomatic deals between Israel and other Arab countries.”

It seems Saudi Arabia is not willing to give Biden an “electioneering favour”. A veteran European diplomat who served in the region told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Saudi crown prince will not hand a “blank cheque” to anybody and that has been his position even before the latest developments in the region. An earlier provision for a peace deal was a commitment from Washington to closer defence ties and assistance with Saudi Arabia’s civilian nuclear programe. Adding the condition of a Palestinian state is in fact putting the deal on hold, at least for now, as Netanyahu will not accept the two-state solution.

The crown prince is actually “playing it quite smartly,” as Andrew Hammond of Oxford University told the Weekly. Hammond also stressed that Israelis “don’t need normalisation. They have enough government and economic ties for now with Arab states and they were never expecting a cultural or tourist bonanza. It’s not about that. So, I don’t see that the Israelis care as much as the Americans think they should do about ‘peace with Saudi Arabia’. Israelis don’t want to integrate with the region. They don’t like its people; they don’t respect its culture. All they want is some business and leaders who will give them security.”

Whether the hardened Saudi position could yield results regarding the war on Gaza is not yet clear. So far, no pressure on Netanyahu – American or otherwise – is bearing fruit. As some commentators note, the Israeli prime minister is trying to keep the war raging until the end of the year. With the expectation of Trump winning the November election, Netanyahu can be assured to stay in power. He also knows that the Biden administration will not waver in their support for the war for Israel’s sake if not for Netanyahu’s.

As the Western diplomat put it, America’s Middle East policy got a “double snub” from Riyadh and Tel Aviv. But that will not weaken support for the war on Gaza, since Hammond refers to the fact that “Americans are literally giving the Israelis the weapons to continue this war.” His view is that “these US diplomatic tours give Israel time to continue the war.” These coming few weeks will prove whether diplomacy can at least reduce the suffering of Palestinians and prevent the escalation of war or a land incursion into Rafah.

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