Alwaght- After months of senior American officials’ discussions with the Saudi rulers to lure them into the normalization with the Israeli regime, it seems that Saudi Arabia will be the next country to join the so-called Abraham Accords. Actually, the recent optimistic remarks by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed that their positions are now closer to each other. Meanwhile, a Saudi delegation has visited the occupied West Bank for the first time in0l three decades to talk to the Palestinian Authority, a move experts say is meant to reassure the Palestinians concerned about imminent normalization between Riyadh and Tel Aviv. Still, the substantial opposition of the Arab public and the Palestinians make the path difficult to the Saudis.
To discuss the aspects of normalization between the two sides, Alwaght has talked to West Asia affairs expert Javad Masoumi.
Alwaght: In recent months, Saudis have taken many equivocal stances. In recent United Nations General Assembly, we saw a summary of all of them. While the Saudi foreign minister talked about the Saudi commitment to the Arab peace initiative, bin Salman said that the talks with the Americans and Israelis have witnessed advances. What is your analysis of the main Saudi strategy about normalization? What are the goals and messages of the Saudi delegation’s visit to the West Bank?
Masoumi: Bin Salman seeks strategic advantages including a security agreement with the United States and nuclear enrichment right in return for a thaw with the Israeli regime. From another side, the Saudis are trying at the same time to save their face in the Arab world they claim they lead. So, to realize their demands, they have not stopped at negotiations and are trying other ways and have set conditions like positive balance in relations with regional and trans-regional powers. In the field of nuclear technology, for the construction of a power plant, they have held talks with Russia’s Rosatom company and also with the Chinese. All of these developments have strengthened Riyadh’s positions at the negotiating table with Washington and Tel Aviv, and in a way, Riyadh is playing the Americans with Israel card, and the Saudi delegation’s trip to the West Bank is also serves this aim.
Alwaght: It seems that the Saudis want to, contrary to the Emiratis, have the minimum support from the Palestinians. Do you agree? And if yes, given the fact that in recent years with the marginalization of the Palestinian Authority in the Palestinian developments and rise of the resistance groups that are against negotiations with the Israeli occupation, how can the Saudis craft a peace deal with Israel acceptable for the Palestinian nation?
Masoumi: In order to maintain its image in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia pushes for two-state solution, but this initiative is far from the main demands and conditions of the Palestinian nation. However, if the Palestinian government announces its existence in the short term, this will allow the Saudi rulers to justify for their public opinion the normalization.
On the other hand, in the occupied territories, the cabinet is hardline, and people like Minister of Internal Security Itmar Ben-Gvir and Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich who are driven by racist policies would not agree with the Saudi proposal.
At the same time, the situation in the Israeli cabinet and community is highly strained and even a civil war cannot be ruled out. Therefore, the initiative the Saudis will present will not be accepted either by the resistance groups or the ruling Israeli radicals and so, the normalization will not succeed this soon.
Alwaght: If we look at the case differently, we can see geopolitical and economic issues are deeply involved in the Saudi-Israeli normalization, especially the Indian-proposed trade corridor that starts from India and reaches Europe after crossing the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the Israeli ports in the Mediterranean. Experts say this is an essentially American project to counter China’s Road and Belt Initiative (RBI), while Saudi Arabia is seeking to participate in the Chinese project. Will participation in the fundamentally American project keep it from joining the Chinese one?
Masoumi: All plans related to international transportation corridors that are proposed should be economical to move goods in the shortest possible time. The plan that was recently presented by India and the United States does not consider the principles of transportation in terms of cost-effectiveness and route efficiency, and is more like a political recommendation. The United States pursues several goals with this proposal. First of all, it wants to restore its relations with India and the cost will be paid from the pockets of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in order to weaken India’s relations with China and Russia within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS. Second, Washington is trying to forge a strategic confrontation between India and China to obstruct Road and Belt Initiative and replace its rival China with India as a trade partner.
From another aspect, this project will cause differences between the UAE and Saudi Arabia which have joined BRICS afresh. It also paves the way for international railway transportation under normalization and slash the Egyptian profits from the Suez Canal in favor of Israeli regime.
Additionally, by doing so, the US wants to create a rival to BRICS to prevent its global expansion. It also wants to instill the Israeli regime as a trade rival in the West Asia. Many experts believe that it is unlikely that the India-Europe corridor will be implemented, because the transportation in this corridor is not cost-effective, and its rail corridors are designed like those of the New Silk Road (RBI), connecting Asia to Europe, and China will not allow the completion of the American plan. Therefore, United States’ initiative is not operational, and the Saudis, knowing this issue, use this plan as a playing card with the Americans.
Alwaght: The Saudi society is described as a molting one, and at least a large part of the youths sympathize with bin Salman’s reforms. Is this true about normalization? How do you think the society will take the normalization? Is bin Salman concerned about this aspect?
Masoumi: Presently, some Saudi politicians believe that by pursuing thaw, Saudi Arabia is moving in a direction whose ultimate goal is unknown, because the people do not agree with this plan. Bin Salman’s internal opponents and rivals also believe that the crown prince’s efforts to align the youth with his plans are for the survival of his throne, and the process of normalization is actually his personal selfish achievement which ultimately ends up at the expense of the Palestinians. After all, Palestine is Arab and Islamic in nature and it is unlikely that the public opinion of Saudi Arabia will come to terms with this matter and Bin Salman’s political opponents are also trying to inform the people about the consequences of this compromise to the Israelis.
Alwaght: In the US, there are concerns about risks of accepting the Saudi condition regarding the security pact. At the same time, the hardline Israeli cabinet has shown that it is not poised to make the smallest concessions to the Palestinians. Given these conditions, what is your outlook of the normalization in the short run?
Masoumi: Behind the normalization, Tel Aviv is seeking integration into the region’s economic and political order to pave the way for other countries to join the normalization. Netanyahu knows very well that Riyadh has the upper hand over the region’s conservative countries, and Tel Aviv is trying to make its way into the regional mechanism by the show of establishment of political relations with Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi crown prince, too, is trying to established balanced relations with all international powers. Riyadh needs to secure maximum security and zero tensions policy with the neighbors for it to take the first step to the economic development, and Yemen peace is serving this agenda. Factors such as the American commitment to maintain the military superiority of the Israeli regime in the region and opposition of the Israeli authorities to uranium enrichment in Saudi Arabia, the arrival of the US presidential election, and the Saudi détente with Iran lead to Riyadh’s unwillingness to normalize relations with Tel Aviv in the short term.
So, there are factors showing that Saudi joining of the Abraham Accords is on hold for now, but the very peace process between Riyadh and Tel Aviv is underway and a strategic change does not seem to happen in strategic Saudi and Israeli policies, and it is too early to foretell a possible scenario in the normalization talks. What is certain is that even if Saudi recognition of the Israeli regime will encourage some other Arab countries to go on board, the world public opinion, Algeria, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman will not follow this project.
Inside the Israeli regime, the hardliners make up the biggest obstacle to this project as they demand annexation of the all of the West Bank to the other occupied territories to expel the Palestinians. In general, these barriers will disrupt the normalization process.