Benjamin Netanyahu a Tel Aviv (La Presse)

Israel and Saudi Arabia Are Closer Than Ever to Normalization

On Sunday, November 22, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a direct flight to Saudi Arabia, marking an unprecedented event in Middle Eastern history and the two countries increasingly close covert partnership.

In Neom — a planned futuristic city in northwestern Saudi Arabia — Netanyahu was accompanied by Mossad chief Yossi Coen and met with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

So far, Saudi Arabia has denied the occurrence of the secret meeting. But numerous reports citing top Israeli officials — including a recent story from the Wall Street Journal — claim otherwise.

According to the reports, the two countries’ leaders met to discuss the rising tensions with Iran and, most importantly, a prospective normalization of their diplomatic ties — all in the wake of US presidential elections that disfavored President Donald Trump.

A Biden presidency is likely to hold up the process of normalization as well as Israel’s sweeping annexation of occupied territories in Palestine, as a Biden administration also likely aims to reenter a nuclear deal with Iran.

A Quick Move During a Global Political Shift

Saudi Arabia’s prospective formalization of diplomatic ties with Israel is being pushed forward with increasing momentum in an attempt to complete it before President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January. It comes along with the recent wave of normalization between Arab countries and Israel encouraged by Trump.

The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan all signed agreements to establish formal ties with Israel recently, whereas Egypt and Jordan already reached peace agreements with Israel in the late 1970s and early 1990s.

President-elect Biden made it clear during his campaign that he would return to the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The deal was concluded during the Obama presidency in which Biden served as vice president.

Biden also said he would reconsider US-Saudi ties, particularly in arms deals in the light of Saudi Arabia’s bloody intervention in Yemen, as well as regarding the country’s human rights record following the killing of American resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Saudi Arabia and Israel vs. Biden and the Iran Deal

Moreover, the occurrence of the meeting between Netanyahu and Mohamed bin Salman, which took place in the same weekend after the virtually held G20 Summit, signals that two countries are willing to put in unprecedented efforts to counter a nuclear Iran, further challenging Biden.

Shortly after returning to Tel Aviv, Netanyahu reiterated his view on the nuclear deal with Iran. “Do not return to the previous nuclear deal,” he said, clearly addressing the incoming administration in the United States.

“We must maintain an uncompromising policy to ensure Iran does not develop nuclear weapons.”

Israeli Minister of Education: ‘An Amazing Achievement’

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan promptly denied the allegations that the meeting between Mohamed bin Salman and Benjamin Netanyahu took place.

For his part, however, Netanyahu neither denied nor confirmed the reports, but his education minister, Yoav Galant, called the event “an amazing achievement” in an interview with Army Radio, a national radio network operated by the Israeli Defense Forces.

“Let us say that the very existence of the meeting, the fact that it was put on publicly, even if it is only half-official at the moment, is a matter of great importance from any aspect and matter,” Galant said.

On the night of the meeting, flight-tracking websites showed a business jet (bizjet t7-cpx) that belonged to an Israeli businessman, Udi Angel, to have flown from Tel Aviv to Neom. According to Israeli media, Netanyahu has used the same jet to go overseas on multiple occasions in the past.

Wrapping up a ten-day farewell tour in Europe and the Middle East, Pompeo was also present in Neom during the same time as the jet stayed in the city. Israeli media also reported that Netanyahu — in addition to Mossad chief Yossi Coen — was also accompanied by his National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and his Military Secretary Avi Bluth.

What’s in It for Both Nations?

Although it worked with the United States to forward the normalization of ties between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, Saudi Arabia has traditionally been coy about publicizing its relations with Israel.

Riyadh had once put Palestinian statehood as the sine qua none for a potential normalization with Israel. It even proposed in 2002 to recognize Israel, but only if the Palestinians first obtained their own state.

But Riyadh’s tone has increasingly shifted in the last months, and even more so in the weeks that preceded the US presidential elections.

Saudi media has grown more easygoing with topics exploring Israeli politics and culture lately, and even broadcasted a long interview with a former ambassador to Washington and intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, that scolded Palestinian leadership.

For Riyadh, formalizing ties with Israel is one way to restore its image with Washington under Biden and further deter criticism over its human rights violations and war crimes in Yemen.

In the meantime, Israel could also benefit significantly from Saudi recognition, since the Gulf monarchy holds significant religious and cultural power in the Arab world as the guardian of key Islamic shrines and holy sites including the Kaaba.

Israeli officials also suggested that a lack of protests in Israel and the United Arab Emirates following the Abraham Accords shows that the deal would come about smoothly for the two countries in the event that they do declare formal diplomatic ties.