In response to the Oct. 7 attacks and subsequent bombing and invasion of the Gaza Strip, most media outlets and think tanks concluded that Hamas initiated the war to sever the path toward normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Prior to the Hamas strike, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) said his country was moving steadily in the direction of normalizing relations with Israel. In turn, Israelis were eager to proceed as well; while Hamas’ leadership feared that Israeli normalization with the Saudis would further isolate Hamas from the Arab world.

However, in light of the now-more-than-two-month-long deadly conflict in Gaza, with the civilian Palestinian death toll reportedly nearing 20,000, Saudi Arabia — which has a deep history of supporting the Palestinians — is under intense pressure not to pursue any sort of settlement with Israel at the moment. Instead, the Saudis have emphasized the need to secure Palestinian rights before Riyadh will sign any peace accord with the Jewish state.

MBS’s policy toward the conflict

On Sept. 20, 2023, MbS gave an interview to Fox News, in which he discussed a variety of topics, including the Saudi policy regarding Israel. In short, he declared that the prospects for normalized relations between both countries “get closer” every day, although he was careful to stress that Palestinians rights should be guaranteed. The Saudis were not going to jeopardize their country’s diplomatic and spiritual status in the Muslim world for nothing.

During his discussion with the White House on Oct. 25 regarding the Gaza war, MbS expressed to President Joe Biden the need to “restore the peace track to ensure that the Palestinian people obtain their legitimate rights” as well as “to achieve fair and comprehensive [Israeli-Palestinian] peace.”

Clearly, Palestinians have the choice of pursuing their own path with Israel as an independent state. The official representative of Palestinians is the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah, which enjoys a good relationship with Riyadh. Indeed, when the current war started, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the Saudi crown prince to discuss the military escalation in Gaza and the occupied territories as well as to inform him about the quickly worsening humanitarian situation and the risks the conflict posed to wider security and stability in the region. Washington has itself adopted the same preconditions as Riyadh (and Ramallah). Thus, in negotiations with Israel on resolving the conflict, the United States insists on a “significant Palestinian component” that would satisfy Saudi Arabia and be acceptable to the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization.

The authority in Ramallah is willing to sign a peace deal with Israel that would include mutual recognition. And should MbS succeed in pressuring Israel to recognize Palestine as a state, in line with Israel’s obligations written into the Oslo Accords, his name will go down in history for having helped resolve a considerable part of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The major obstacle remains the current Israeli government’s attitude, which openly opposes the two-state solution.

The essentials of the potential deal

The robustness of the Israeli stance is predicated on its ability to continue to pursue bilateral negotiations with separate Arab countries. And in seeking a bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia, Israel is trying to ensure that no third party (i.e., the Palestinians) will become involved in any potential agreement. The Israelis might provide some verbal promises to the Saudis regarding the Palestine issue, likely using convoluted language that protects Israel’s own ambitions. However, the Saudis want to see a situation in which the Palestinians feel ready to consent to Israel’s (legitimate) promises, to allow Riyadh to avoid having to step in again amidst further tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Meanwhile, MbS is looking for the highest benefit from a deal with the U.S., not Israel, which does not have too much to bring to the table. And so, the Saudi leader is focusing on Washington, soliciting levels of security guarantees, including advanced weapons and military technology, from the American side that Saudi Arabia has never enjoyed to date.

Of course, Saudi engagement in negotiations with Israel does not assure that a final deal can be reached. But it is worth noting that, prior to the outbreak of the war in Gaza, MbS had successfully moved the Biden administration in a direction that would bolster his agenda. Notably, the White House’s Middle East coordinator, Brett McGurk, was working for months to broker economic and security agreements that would unfreeze the ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The first, and unconditioned, step in launching those negotiations required Biden to quietly drop his campaign pledge to make the Saudi kingdom a “pariah.” And with no major Saudi royal member having traveled to Washington in the first three years of Biden’s presidency, the Oct. 30, 2023, visit of Saudi Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman to the U.S. capital — though clearly happening in the context of the Gaza war — was nonetheless a critical step in the bilateral relationship. The defense minister was the highest-ranking Saudi official to date to visit Washington since the Biden administration assumed office.

Biden’s team is quickly running out of time to reach a deal that the incumbent president could point to, ahead of the 2024 elections, as a foreign policy victory in the Middle East that would be as significant, if not more so, as the Abraham Accords achieved under President Donald Trump’s administration. Therefore, Biden and his officials have noticeably withdrawn some of the anti-Saudi slogans he used in his 2020 campaign. But even if these efforts come to naught because of the Gaza war, some observers argue that, at this point, MbS may have already gotten what he wanted — a “normalization” of relations with the Biden White House — from having engaged in the negotiations.

Still, the latest war in Gaza has upset and further complicated the political game in the Middle East. Since Oct. 7, most think tank briefings and media reports have pointed to the potential agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel as a major reason for Hamas’s initiation of the war. According to Matthew Levitt, of the Washington Institute, the factor motivating Hamas’s leadership to carry out its severely escalatory attack was primarily to obstruct Israel’s diplomatic efforts with Saudi Arabia. Hamas was certain that such a normalization agreement would have bumped the Palestinian issue from the tops of the agendas of most Arab and Islamic countries. Moreover, the expected normalization could have strengthened an effective regional alliance against Iran and its allied proxies, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

The Saudi attitude toward the current war is balanced from their point of view. On the one hand, Riyadh is clearly not in favor of Hamas. But on the other hand, the Saudi government has categorically and unequivocally condemned the overwhelming attack and siege of Gaza that Israel has carried out in response to Oct. 7. Furthermore, the Saudi side has actively telegraphed its displeasure to the United States. When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Riyadh, on the heels of his initial visit to Tel Aviv — where he invoked his Jewish identity — after the war began, he was kept “waiting several hours for a meeting presumed to happen in the evening but which the crown prince only showed up for the next morning.” The Saudis perceived this action as signaling their sovereignty and solidarity with their Palestinian brothers.

As the war continues, the Saudis strongly oppose the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, which Riyadh regularly argues, will make it harder, if not impossible, to reach a peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

On Nov. 11, Saudi Arabia hosted an extraordinary joint summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the League of Arab States. The multiparty meeting was held in response to the exceptional circumstances taking place in the Gaza Strip, and the Saudi government succeeded in spearheading a unified collective position among the summit participants. The day before, Riyadh hosted a pre-scheduled Saudi-African summit. The heads of state gathering stressed “the role that the international community must play in putting pressure on the Israeli side to stop Israeli attacks and the forced displacement of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, which is a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law and international laws.”

The kingdom’s success in organizing the OIC-Arab League summit, which brought together leaders and representatives of more than 90 countries in Riyadh within two days of announcing the invitation, is an indication of the strength of Saudi diplomacy in the present moment. This success should strengthen the Saudi position in any upcoming negotiations with Israel, if they are allowed to occur in the near future.

What now?

Mohammed bin Salman is not interested in transnational tensions with neighbors. He has adopted a zero-conflict policy, which has extended, earlier this year, even to accepting the restoration of diplomatic relations with Iran. Moreover, he has expressed a positive attitude toward eventually reaching a peace agreement with Israel. However, Israel is not Iran — while the relationship with Iran is dominated mainly by shared issues Riyadh and Tehran are capable of resolving on their own, the case of Israel encompasses multiple transnational matters that extend beyond strictly bilateral relations.

The Palestinian issue, in particular, is a critical topic for a leading Arab-Muslim country such as Saudi Arabia. So, Riyadh has to strategically calculate its moves on any domestic, regional, or international matters that could affect or be influenced by it. Saudi Arabia will thus, likely, seek to defer normalization with Israel until reasonable gains for Palestinians have been guaranteed. At the same time, the U.S. is still the Saudi kingdom’s primary supplier of weapons and military technology, which is critical for maintaining regional stability and deterring Iran and its proxies. Therefore, as the presumed broker of any realistic Saudi-Israeli normalization agreement, Washington should make a good faith effort to address Riyadh’s demands for weapons and technologies if its two regional allies agree to sit and negotiate a peace deal in the future.


Dr. Abdullah F. Alrebh is Associate Professor in Sociology of Religion and Sociological Theory at Grand Valley State University and a Non-resident Scholar at MEI. His research focuses on the politics, culture, religion, and authority of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and Islam.

Andre Malerba/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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