Israel Tempers Expectations of a Breakthrough in Normalization Talks With Saudi Arabia

Diplomatic sources say Riyadh’s demands that the US back a Saudi nuclear program place chances of Israel-Saudi normalization in jeopardy.

Amir Tibon, Jack Khoury, Jonathan Lis, HAARETZ    31.5.23

Crown Prince Mohammed bin SalmanREUTERS

Even hopes for an agreement on direct flights for Muslim Israelis seem unlikely to be realized this year, and in any event, most of those planning to make the Hajj have already made travel arrangements through Jordan

Senior Israeli officials have clarified that ongoing talks aimed at normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel are far from maturing due to several issues that would affect Israel’s military superiority and nuclear hegemony in the region.

Additionally, any hopes for confidence building measures before any major agreements are made, such as enabling a direct flight during the Hajj for Israeli Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca, may not materialize this year.

A senior Israeli official who spoke with Haaretz noted that the talk’s two main challenges stem from the Saudi request for advanced American weaponry, alongside the Saudi demand for American permission to start a civilian nuclear program.

Both items pose a problem for Israel: The first is the fear of eroding Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East, and the second is due to the potential of a civilian nuclear program later becoming the basis for Saudi nuclear arms manufacturing, ending the regional nuclear monopoly attributed to Israel.

“Biden wants an Israeli-Saudi deal and to present it as a foreign relations achievement in next year’s campaign, but he’ll have a problem if the price is a Saudi nuclear program,” said the senior figure.

Israel’s National Security Council head Tzachi Hanegbi said on Tuesday in an interview with Army Radio that “The Saudis’ demands are from the U.S. It’s an American dilemma, what the U.S. is willing to pay for a deal.” Hanegbi added that “We don’t always know what goes on in the Saudi-American corridors. Some issues require Congressional approval, and we’re not involved.”

On the nuclear question, Hanegbi said that “The Americans won’t advance on this issue with the Saudis without being in close contact with us,” adding that “There’s a problem if a country wants a civilian nuclear program because it’ll wish to exploit it for military capabilities.”

Israel estimates that finding solutions to these issues will take at least several months.

Foreign Affairs Ministry Director-General Ronen Levy, who has been instrumental in Israel’s relations with the Arab world, visited Washington last month. Levy is the most senior Israeli figure to visit the American capital recently, as President Biden is refusing to invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a visit.

In meetings held between Levy and senior State Department officials, a proposal was made to initiate gestures between Israel and Saudi Arabia even before pushing for a comprehensive normalization agreement between the countries. Levy’s visit was mainly dedicated to inaugurating a direct flight route from Israel to Saudi Arabia next month for Muslim citizens planning to make the pilgrimage to Mecca during the Hajj.

Israel expressed optimism about the idea, but in his interview on Tuesday, Hanegbi said that the short time left until the Hajj period in the middle of June may prevent its implementation this year. “We would like it to happen, and I hope it can be arranged, but it’s unclear if it can happen within the timeframe,” Hanegbi explained. He added that when the issue was raised in the past, “the Saudis never objected, but also didn’t go out of their way to make it possible.”

Another reason for doubts regarding flights for the upcoming Hajj is the fact that most Israeli citizens planning to take part in the pilgrimage have already purchased plane tickets via Jordan. The estimate is for close to 5,000 Muslim citizens that will participate this year, and a source involved in arranging the pilgrimage tours told Haaretz that “almost everyone has closed flights and trips with documents and transit permits handled by the Jordanian ministry of religious trusts.”

It is unclear what benefit could be had from creating a direct flight at such a late stage after preparations have been made for the journey, the source added. “They talked about it during Bennett and Lapid’s time too, and in the end nothing happened. Right now it doesn’t seem like anything is going to happen this year either.” One possibility is that the implementation of the line, if it does take place this year, will be merely symbolic and declarative, with only one or two actual flights.

Levy spoke this week at an event on Israeli-Saudi relations held by the Institute for National Security Studies, saying that alongside the desire to advance a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia, Israel must focus on the potential of reaching agreements with several smaller countries.

Recent weeks have seen a joint effort by Israel and the U.S. to add a Muslim African country, which currently holds no official ties with Israel, to the upcoming convention of the “Negev Forum,” scheduled for the end of June in Morocco. The senior figure who spoke with Haaretz said that such an initiative “doesn’t stir the imagination like peace with Saudi Arabia, but in the near term, it’s more realistic.”

May 31, 2023 | 1 Comment »

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  1. Saudi has time, and enough on its plate, to keep Israel waiting past the next elections in Israel and the US. Remember that the 2002 “peace plan” has appropriate weasel wording about “a just solution” to the refugee question to put Israel off till the petro-era ends.
    Saudi’s wish for a part of the admiistration of the Haram es Shareef wakf should be bounced back to it as something to talk to Jordan about as Israel has treaty obligations to Jordan about the wakf and is keeping that “bird in hand over any Saudi bird in bush.”