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May 19, 2023 10:18 am

Do Normalized Israel-Saudi Relations Run Through Washington?

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avatar by Henrique Cymerman


Saudi Arabia’s Tahani Alqahtani (white) and Israel’s Raz Hershko compete in the first round of the women’s judo over 78-kilogram category at the Tokyo Olympics on July 30, 2021, at Nippon Budokan. Photo: Reuters/Kyodo News.

The Middle East is currently going through its largest geo-strategic revolution in decades, and Israel is at the heart of it.

From being a country surrounded by enemies calling for its elimination, the Jewish state has become a potential strategic partner for the most powerful Sunni-Arab state in the region, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi officials give four reasons when asked why they changed their mind about Israel: The two states have common enemies; the 1973 Yom Kippur War demonstrated once and for all that the Arabs have no military option; Israel has blossomed into the start-up nation, and could help jump-start a start-up region; and finally, 70% of Saudis are under 30, and are not bogged down by 20th-century historical baggage.

In May, I visited the Saudi capital of Riyadh to meet with senior Saudi officials, just as a new escalation erupted between Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and Israel.

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My concerns that the meeting would be canceled in light of the escalation were unfounded. The opposite occurred, and the meeting went ahead.

At the same time, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the Palestinian issue is an elephant in the room of Israeli — Saudi relations, casting a shadow.

When Jake Sullivan, the United States National Security Advisor, asked the Saudis what conditions are needed for normalizing relations with Israel, most of what he was told by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, was actually about America. The issues were related to obtaining sophisticated American weapons, resuming that strategic Saudi alliance with the US, obtaining nuclear power for civilian purposes, and for the US to stop condemning Saudi Arabia on human rights issues, or to keep bringing up the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

When it comes to Israeli issues, Jerusalem and the future of the Haram Al-Sharif (the Temple Mount) is paramount.The issues is important for nearly two billion Muslims, and it also forms an opportunity for the Saudis to play a role in Jerusalem.

But overall, any future normalization agreement between Riyadh and Jerusalem will have to run through Washington, not Gaza.

Furthermore, the Saudis made it clear that the recent Iranian-Saudi normalization agreement does not come at the expense of normalization with Israel.

“Not everything happens through you the Israelis. The fact that 7 years after the break with Tehran we reopen the embassy, has to do with various national interests. The UK, Spain, Germany, France, they all have an embassy in Tehran,” a Saudi minister explained with a smile.

The Saudis are insulted when they are compared with smaller Gulf states, through the question of whether they will follow the UAE and Bahrain in joining the Abraham Accords.

This is due to the fact that the Saudis are the custodians of Mecca and Medina, the holiest sites of Islam, and where Islam was born, as well as being the world’s main oil producer.

“With all the respect to our neighbors, we Saudi Arabia are the Israeli gateway to the Arab and Muslim world,” said one official.

And he is right. Unofficial normalization has long been underway. Security cooperation appears to be occurring in the Red Sea, for example. Saudi officials point out that it is no coincidence that the phenomenal futuristic city of Neom is being built only 350 km from the Israeli border.

The danger of Israel normalizing relations with other countries comes from “spoilers” being plotted by Iran, which supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories. This axis wants nothing more than to spoil the new agreements between Israel and the pragmatic Arab countries.

For Israel, a new chance is emerging for a type of second independence. The new geopolitical situation, despite the dangers of a confrontation on several fronts between Israel and Iran’s proxies, forces decision-makers in the region, in many capitals, to reevaluate all the previous paradigms.

While tensions and doubts exist in some Arab countries due to the presence of extreme right elements in the current Israeli government coalition, the chances of a new coalition in Israel gives those rooting for normalization in the Arab world some hope.

Despite the risks and potential traps along the way, Israel and Saudi Arabia are only in the opening chapter of a long book.

Henrique Cymerman is a publishing expert with The MirYam Institute. He  is a journalist of global renown whose writings regularly appear in media publications in Europe, the US, Latin America, and Israel. Pope Francis nominated him his Angel of Peace for organizing the Prayer for Peace in the Vatican, and for joint humanitarian projects

The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at

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