Saudi Arabia willing to normalise relations with Israel in exchange for a US defence pact and civilian nuclear programme.
For months, Saudi Arabia and Israel – with the United States – have been discussing an agreement to normalise relations.
The US has made it clear that official relations between its two allies in the Middle East is a top priority, with top diplomat Antony Blinken declaring it a “national security interest“.
This comes amid a regional realignment after Iran and Saudi Arabia re-established diplomatic ties after years of animosity.
On Wednesday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) told US channel Fox News: “Every day we get closer” to a normalisation deal with Israel.
So what are Saudi Arabia’s conditions for normalisation?
Riyadh wants a US defence pact – including fewer restrictions on US arms sales to it – and assistance in developing its own civilian nuclear programme.
It also said any deal would require major progress towards the creation of a Palestinian state, which is a hard sell for the most religious and far-right nationalist government in Israel’s history.
Saudi Arabia has been a big proponent of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which conditions normalisation with Israel on its withdrawal from Palestinian territory and Syria’s Golan Heights.
The initiative also includes the establishment of a Palestinian state as well as finding a “fair solution” to the plight of the millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, most of whom live in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.
What did Israel say?
On Thursday, Israel’s foreign minister struck an optimistic tone, saying he expects a deal to be reached soon.
“The gaps can be bridged,” Eli Cohen told Israel’s Army Radio. “I think there is certainly a likelihood that, in the first quarter of 2024, four or five months hence, we will be able to be at a point where the details [of a deal] are finalised,” he added.
Saudi Arabia’s desire to build a nuclear programme does not seem to be an obstacle. Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s national security adviser, said in July: “Dozens of countries operate projects with civilian nuclear cores and with nuclear endeavours for energy. This is not something that endangers them nor their neighbours.”
However, Netanyahu’s government, including National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, has rejected “concessions” to the Palestinian Authority (PA) government as part of normalising relations, including a settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank.
How has the Palestinian Authority reacted?
In a bid to win over the PA, Saudi Arabia has offered to resume financial support to it after aid dropped to zero in 2021.
According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, a delegation of PA officials last month went to Riyadh to press for their own set of conditions in exchange for acquiescing to Saudi Arabia normalising ties with Israel.
The conditions include the reopening of the US consulate in occupied East Jerusalem, which former US President Donald Trump closed in 2019. The PA has also asked the US to back full Palestinian representation at the United Nations.
Other conditions include Israel giving the PA more control over some parts of the occupied West Bank and getting rid of illegal Israeli outposts.
This has been a far cry from how the PA reacted when Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates announced normalisation with Israel in 2020. At the time, the PA accused the Gulf states of stabbing it in the back.
What has Iran said?
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has warned Saudi Arabia against making any deal with Israel.
At a news conference, also in New York on the fringes of the UN General Assembly, Raisi told Sky News such a deal would be a “stab in the back of the Palestinian people and their resistance”.
“Under no circumstances are the regional countries willing for the Islamic countries to abandon the sacred principle of the plight of the Palestinian people because the liberation of the holy city of Jerusalem is at the core of the belief of all Muslims,” he said.