As widely expected, Saudi Arabia has put its US-backed plans to normalize ties with Israel on ice indefinitely, Reuters reported citing two sources, signalling a rapid reversal (and rethinking) of the Kingdom’s foreign policy priorities as war escalates between Israel and Hamas.
Meanwhile, as reported previously, the rapidly escalating war has also pushed the kingdom to engage with Israel’s sworn enemy, Iran: earlier this week, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took his first phone call from Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi as Riyadh tries to prevent a broader surge in violence across the region.
Two sources told Reuters there would be a delay in the US-backed talks on normalization with Israel that was a key step for the kingdom to secure what Riyadh considers the real prize of a U.S. defense pact in exchange, although it may just as well settle for a higher oil price now that geopolitical risk premium has exploded higher.
As a reminder, until Hamas sparked a war on Oct. 7 by launching an attack on Israel, whether with or without Iran backing, both Israeli and Saudi leaders had been saying they were moving steadily towards a deal that could have reshaped the Middle East.
While Saudi Arabia – birthplace of Islam and home to its two holiest sites – had until the latest conflict indicated it would not allow its pursuit of a U.S. defense pact be derailed even if Israel did not offer significant concessions to the Palestinians in the their bid for statehood, sources had previously said. But an approach that sidelined Palestinians would risk angering Arabs around the region, as Arab news outlets broadcast images of Palestinians killed in Israeli retaliatory airstrikes.
Hamas fighters killed more than 1,300 Israelis in their Oct. 7 attack and more than 1,500 had been killed by Friday in Israel’s ongoing strikes on Gaza in response, according to official reports.
The first Reuters source said talks could not be continued for now and the issue of Israeli concessions for the Palestinians would need to be a bigger priority when discussions resumed – a comment that indicates Riyadh has not abandoned the idea, although the probability of Palestine getting bigger concessions now from the Biden admin is negligible.
The Saudi rethink highlights challenges facing Washington’s efforts to deepen Israel’s integration in a region where the Palestinian cause remains a major Arab concern.
“Normalisation was already considered taboo (in the Arab world) … this war only amplifies that,” Saudi analyst Aziz Alghashian said.
The Reuters source said Washington had pressed Riyadh this week to condemn the Hamas attack but said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan pushed back. A U.S. source familiar with the issue confirmed this.
Meanwhile, Biden’s top National Security advisor Jake Sullivan once again lied, and told a White House briefing this week that the normalization effort was “not on hold” but said the focus was on other immediate challenges. The truth: the normalization effort is not only “on hold” but absent a miracle, is dead.
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Meanwhile, the regional conflict has also prompted the Saudi crown prince and Iran’s president to speak for the first time after a Chinese-brokered initiative prompted the Gulf rivals to re-establish diplomatic ties in April. A Saudi statement said the crown prince told Raisi “the kingdom is exerting maximum effort to engage with all international and regional parties to halt the ongoing escalation”, underling Riyadh’s move to contain the crisis.
A senior Iranian official told Reuters the call, made by Raisi to the crown prince, aimed to support “Palestine and prevent the spread of war in the region”. “The call was good and promising,” the official said.
A second Iranian official said the call lasted 45 minutes and had the blessing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Saudi government did not provide further details on the call but the statement said the crown prince stated the kingdom’s “opposition to any form of civilian targeting and the loss of innocent lives” and expressed Riyadh’s “unwavering stance in standing up for the Palestinian cause”.
Bottom line: while just one week ago the US was making progress in pushing Saudi Arabia and Iran far apart, events from last weekend have reminded the middle east that, at the end of the day, Arabs will be Arabs.