The US is pushing for a historic deal to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, but the process faces major obstacles, especially over the issue of Palestine. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday that the normalization of ties between the two regional powers remains “a difficult proposition” and that any agreement would have to include a “significant component” for the Palestinians.
The US sees a Saudi-Israel pact as a way to enhance stability and security in the Middle East, as well as to counter the influence of Iran, which is seen as a common threat by both Riyadh and Tel Aviv. The US also hopes that having the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites recognize the Jewish state would “resonate very, very powerfully” in the region and encourage other Arab and Muslim countries to follow suit.
However, Saudi Arabia has not officially changed its stance on the Arab Peace Initiative, which was proposed by the late King Abdullah in 2002 and endorsed by the Arab League. The initiative calls for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, and to accept a “just solution” for the Palestinian refugees in exchange for full normalization of relations with the Arab world.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely seen as the de facto ruler of the kingdom, has expressed some openness to dialogue with Israel, but he has also stressed that any deal should address the Palestinian cause. Last year, he said that Israel is a “potential ally” but that it “should solve its problems with the Palestinians” first.
The US has reportedly offered Saudi Arabia various incentives to entice it to normalize ties with Israel, including security guarantees, nuclear cooperation, and economic benefits. According to a New York Times columnist who regularly meets with President Joe Biden, the US is pursuing a complex plan that would involve giving Saudi Arabia NATO-like security assurances and helping it start a civilian nuclear program. The plan would also require Israel to freeze its settlement expansion and pledge not to annex any part of the West Bank. However, the plan would not directly involve the Palestinians or address their core demands for statehood and sovereignty.
The US has not officially confirmed or denied the details of this plan, but it has acknowledged that it is working on achieving a “transformative” agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Blinken said on Friday that he believes such a deal is “very much possible” but not “a certainty”. He added that the US expects “progress on a number of issues” of its concern in any deal reached between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
The US has already brokered normalization agreements between Israel and four Arab countries: The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. These deals, known as the Abraham Accords, were signed last year under the auspices of former President Donald Trump. However, they have been criticized by many Palestinians and their supporters as a betrayal of their rights and aspirations. The deals have also failed to bring any tangible benefits to the Palestinians or to advance the prospects of peace between them and Israel.
The US is expected to review its strategy towards Saudi Arabia and Israel at a summit in October, where it will decide whether to expand or reduce its engagement with both countries. The outcome of the summit will depend largely on how both sides behave in the coming weeks, especially on their respect for human rights and their role in regional conflicts.