by Neville Teller
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of his hope that Saudi Arabia will be the next Arab state to sign up to the Abraham Accords. He is reported to have discussed the issue with US national security adviser Jake Sullivan on January 19, and no doubt did so with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, when he was in Israel recently. They also considered, no doubt, the contribution of Saudi’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, to a meeting at the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos the day before, January 17.
It was an odd statement. Far from reporting any development in the kingdom’s relations with Israel, Prince Faisal announced that Saudi Arabia was trying to find a way to negotiate with Iran, apparently hoping the Abraham Accords would persuade it to engage – an argument unlikely to cut much ice. The prince said that the decision by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to focus on their economies and development was a “strong signal to Iran and others in the region that there is a pathway beyond traditional arguments and disputes towards joint prosperity.”
Saudi Arabia and Iran – long rivals for dominance in the Muslim world – severed relations in 2016, but for a full year starting in April 2021 officials from the two countries held direct talks, hosted by Iraq, presumably directed at achieving some sort of accommodation. There have been five rounds in all, the last in April 2022. All proved inconclusive. Yet Prince Faisal apparently remains hopeful. During his address at Davos he remained provocatively unclear as to which he considers the more important – repairing relations with Iran, or signing up to normalization with Israel. As practical political objectives, the two seem incompatible, and he may soon have to make a choice between them.
Founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab, a German engineer, economist and academic now in his eighties, the World Economic Forum has become an established annual event. This year it took place as usual in Davos from January 16 to 20. Israel’s new foreign minister, Eli Cohen, was in attendance. His brief was doubtless to try to advance Netanyahu’s hope of persuading Saudi Arabia to sign up to the Abraham Accords. Prince Faisal’s remarks about Iran, added to others in which he highlighted regional concerns over Israel’s new government and its “provocative policies”, did not set a hopeful tone. His comments in a TV interview on January 19 did nothing to improve matters. On normalizing relations with Israel, he indicated no movement at all on the traditional Saudi stance.
“We have said consistently that we believe normalization with Israel is something that is very much in the interest of the region,” he said. “However, true normalization and true stability will only come through giving the Palestinians hope, through giving the Palestinians dignity. That requires giving the Palestinians a state, and that’s the priority.”
Prince Faisal is certainly correct in describing the Saudi stance on normalization as consistent. An Arab offer to normalize relations with Israel, come to be known as the Arab Peace Initiative (API), was first made in a meeting of the Arab League in 2002. The plan, endorsed on three subsequent occasions by the Arab League, advocates a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute. Given the establishment of a sovereign Palestine on territories overrun by Israel during the Six-Day War, namely the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and a just resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue, the API promises full normalization of relations between the Muslim world and Israel.
For twenty years Saudi Arabia has continued to advocate the two-state solution as a prerequisite for normalization. But Saudi leaders have increasingly failed to take into account that the Initiative was drafted well before Hamas gained control of Gaza. The situation in 2023 is radically different from what it was in 2002. Ever since 2007, when Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian people have been split in two. The half under Hamas control, or suppporting the Hamas agenda, would never subscribe to a two-state solution. One of the states would be Israel and Hamas, regarding Israel as interlopers on Palestinian land, aims to overthrow it. World opinion, including Saudi Arabia, has never faced up to the awkward truth that in order to achieve a two-state solution, the Hamas organization must first be disempowered.
In any case, even for less extreme elements within the Palestinian world, paying lip-service to a two-state solution is only a tactic, a stepping stone. The true Palestinian cause is to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine, “from the river to the sea.” Any Palestinian leader signing a deal that confirmed Israel’s right to exist on that territory would be denounced as a traitor to the Palestinian cause.
Back in February 2022 Prince Faisal’s position seemed somewhat more encouraging than at Davos. He is quoted as saying: “The integration of Israel in the region will be a huge benefit not only for Israel itself but for the entire region.” Yet he reiterated: “…this will happen when a just solution is found.”
Netanyahu’s tactic must be to convince Saudi Arabia of the sea-change in priorities wrought by Hamas intransigence and the Abraham Accords. The API regards Arab-Israel normalization as the reward for solving the Israel-Palestinian dispute. The pragmatic Arab states that sign up to the Accords, although subscribing whole-heartedly to Palestinian aspirations, believe that their own interests and future prosperity should not be dependent on solving what has so far proved an intractable problem, and is likely to remain one as long as Hamas retains its political power. Netanyahu can be very persuasive, but so far Saudi Arabia is sticking to its guns.