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Israel and Saudi Arabia in the Shadow of War: "The Price of Normalization has Gone Up"

Experts including National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi discussed the impact of the Israel-Hamas war on regional geopolitics at a conference held by the Institute for National Security Studies in cooperation with the Misgav Institute | Ruth Wasserman Lande, Misgav Institute Senior Fellow: "Defeating Hamas is the key to all diplomatic arenas in the region, including Jordan and Egypt"

צחי הנגבי בכנס המכון למחקרי ביטחון לאומי (צילום: INSS)
Tzachi Hanegbi (right) at the INSS conference at Tel Aviv University on Monday, May 27th, 2024 (Photo: INSS)
By Uriel Levy

"In order to achieve normalization, things need to calm down, and after we finish eradicating the Hamas brigades in Rafah there will be a reduction in the fighting," said Tzachi Hanegbi, head of the National Security Council, at a conference held in late May by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. Hanegbi also referred to the fighting in Rafah following the order of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, saying that the order does not prohibit any operational activity in Rafah, but rather prohibits Israel from exterminating the Palestinians as an ethnic group, "something that in any case we are not doing and do not plan to do. This is a convoluted order that does not prevent us from continuing the eradication of Hamas, including in Rafah," Hanegbi said.

When asked about control of the Gaza Strip once the fighting stops, Hanegbi responded that according to the IDF, it will take at least until the end of 2024 to eradicate Hamas' military power, so it was too early to decide who would control the Gaza Strip afterwards. "At the moment, no one is willing to take over civilian rule because everyone is afraid of Hamas. It's still too early. When the time comes, we will decide which of all of the options is the correct one."

Hanegbi noted that there are a variety of possibilities as to who might take on civilian rule in Gaza, including "a military government, a local authority, clans, aid organizations, local agents, the Palestinian Authority, assistance from international organizations and Arab states, and perhaps also a combination of some of these options according to a structure to be determined when appropriate."

"The Price of Normalization has Risen for Israel, but also for Saudi Arabia"

"One of the consequences of October 7 is that the price of normalization has gone up," said Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a Senior Research Fellow at the INSS who focuses on Gulf politics and security. "The price has gone up for Israel, but also for Saudi Arabia. Now, the Saudis have to take responsibility for Gaza in one way or another, which they didn’t have to do before October 7. In addition, they also have to pay a price in the face of domestic public opinion, and Arab opinion in general, whose previous positions against normalization have become more extreme.

"Right now 95% of the citizens of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, oppose normalization, so if you ask Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman if he is interested in normalizing relations with Israel, he will say no, he is not interested. The reason he would be willing to normalize relations is for what he will get from the United States. Because the price that the Saudis have to pay has gone up, so has the price that they demand from us. The Saudis are now demanding irreversible steps toward a Palestinian state. They have been satisfied with promises up to now and in my estimation will not be willing to settle for them any longer. They want irreversible measures," Guzansky said.

According to Guzansky, Israel hopes to achieve several goals in a potential normalization agreement, including establishing relations with the largest economy in the region. Saudi Arabia is the only country among the twenty largest world economies that does not have official ties with Israel. In the political sphere, Israel hopes that Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries will act in the Gaza Strip. However, Guzansky noted that the Saudis are not interested in this, and that this is a huge price for them to pay. Israel also hopes that in the long run, Saudi recognition of Israel will lead to greater acceptance of Israel in the region among Arab and Muslim countries.

Israel may also receive security benefits from a potential deal with Saudi Arabia, according to Guzansky: "We saw a hint of this in the Iranian attack. It was just a hint, but we could receive a lot more in terms of security." Guzansky also believes that a normalization agreement will strengthen the position of the United States in the region over China, Russia, and Iran, which will lead to a kind of boomerang effect and strengthen Israel's status as part of the regional alliance.

"Progress on Normalization will Depend on a Two-State Solution"

Alongside the benefits Israel may derive, a normalization agreement will also require prices to be paid. The most familiar demand is that Israel make progress on a two-state solution, but this is not the only price.

The Saudis insist on enriching uranium in their territory. Part of the normalization deal will include allowing the Saudis to build a "nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes." That's a price Israel will have to pay, Guzansky said. The fear is that other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, will also ask for enrichment capabilities. In the field of conventional weapons as well, Saudi Arabia is demanding advanced "tiebreaker" weapons from the Americans. Guzansky believes this has serious regional implications.

"What model of normalization will we get? I don’t think we’ll get the Emirati model of warm relations," Guzansky said. "The Saudis will gradually go against Israel, it will continue for years. The progress of the relationship will depend to a large extent on the progress of a two-state solution."

"There is Hatred on a Psychopathic Level, You Can't Ignore it when Discussing a Political Process"

Ruth Wasserman Lande of the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy sought to explain Israel’s reluctance to initiate a political process with the Palestinians.

"There is a political fear of speaking to a large audience that experienced a catastrophe on the seventh of October. It's hard to look people in the eye and convince them that there is someone to talk to. I personally don't think there's anyone to talk to at this point in time, and that's not an easy thing to say. I'm not saying this through a political or populist prism. I say this with pain. We are exposed to a very difficult situation: Incitement. Hate. Education. Messages that are super anti-Israel. The hatred that is fed into the veins of the Arab public against us is so insane that it is possible for a child to call his mother and brag about the murder of Jews. It's hatred on a psychopathic level. This cannot be ignored in any discussion of a political process or normalization. We must make this demand preliminary: an end to the insane incitement against us. It's not just in Gaza, it's also in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], East Jerusalem, Jordan."

Wasserman Lande argued that normalization cannot be achieved before a military victory against Hamas: "No one wants us to be weak. No one needs a weak Israel. They need us to be a strong leading force, and for this we must restore security to the residents of the country. Defeating Hamas is the key to all diplomatic arenas in the region – including Jordan and Egypt."

Promoting Relationships through Interim Agreements

Asher Fredman of the Misgav Institute proposed limited interim steps to promote relations through small agreements, until a full state of normalization is reached. According to Fredman, full normalization with the Saudis would require that Hamas be toppled and that the Saudis acquire some degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinians. "It doesn't have to be the PA. It can also come from the clans, [Mohammed] Dahlan or any other entity that the Palestinians see as a representative, but there must be some Palestinian legitimacy in order to advance normalization."

Fredman noted that while these are not steps that can be taken in the immediate term, it is possible to publicly promote interim steps with Saudi Arabia – steps that are less than full normalization, but create movement in that direction. "There could also be interim measures on trade – for example, goods transported by Jordanian drivers between Saudi Arabia and ports in Israel."

This article was translated from Hebrew by Paul Weissfellner.

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