Will India Back Israel-Saudi Formal Ties? How Can India Benefit?
India has nurtured good relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE & Bahrain, and will gain from peace in West Asia.
The historic Abraham Accords, signed in September 2020, led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the two gulf countries, UAE and Bahrain, breaking a logjam of 41 years and causing quite a stir globally and in West Asia.
The Palestinian issue had led to Arab-Israeli wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973, till the Oslo Accords of 1979 brought about peace between Israel and two Arab states – Egypt and Jordan – who first broke ranks with other Arab states and crossed the Rubicon. UAE and Bahrain broke the logjam and crossed the same Rubicon, with Sudan joining the ranks of breakaway Arab nations.
Though supportive of these Abraham Accords, Saudi Arabia did not follow suit and stayed its hand. It is no secret that the USA has been applying pressure on Saudi Arabia to normalise ties with Israel. President Trump’s ‘Peace Plan’ had given the leeway to Israel to annex Palestinian territory having Jewish settlements.
Under the Abraham Accords, Israel will put on hold any annexation plan. Israel’s stop-and-go policy on building Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories, however, has not been halted.
A ‘Secret’ Meeting Between Israeli PM, Saudi Crown Prince & US State Secy
Last Sunday, according to the Israeli Education Minister Yoav Gallant, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by the Mossad Chief, made a secret trip to Saudi Arabia to hold a meeting with the American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, popularly known as MBS. Netanyahu refused to be drawn into any public acknowledgement of the visit. The meeting reportedly took place in the Saudi city of Neom, on the Red Sea coast near the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. A brainchild of MBS, the new Neom megacity is being developed as a new industrial and tourism hub. Its location is 70 kms from the southern tip of Israel, and this may indicate Saudi Arabia’s interest in involving Israel in its development.
The visit was promptly denied by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, Al Saud, leading to much speculation. Interestingly, while Israeli officials claimed credit, Saudi Arabia opted to dodge the issue by denying the visit.
American official sources maintained a studied silence, acknowledging only Pompeo’s meeting with MBS. Saudi Arabia is sticking to its pre-condition of insisting on the two-state solution, creating an independent Palestinian State as per the 2020 Arab Peace Plan, before it normalises relations with Israel.
Saudi Arabia Must Cross the Rubicon For Other Arab Countries To Normalise Ties With Israel
Flight tracking websites recorded the flight of an Israeli private aircraft to Neom and its return to Israel. The visit cannot be seen as a shot in the dark because Israel and Saudi Arabia have been in contact for quite some time.
UAE and Bahrain could not have signed the Abraham Accords without the explicit consent of Saudi Arabia, their close ally.
The Trump Administration has pushed hard for normalisation of relations between Israel and Arab countries, hoping to consolidate an Arab front against Iran. Trump had also hoped for a collateral effect of harvesting dividends in the election that he has now lost to Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger. Pompeo has spearheaded this policy, hoping to cash in on this success and add to his portfolio of achievements. Pompeo, reportedly is eyeing the Republican nomination as a presidential candidate in 2024.
The Gulf Arab nations are now lowering their priority on the Palestinian issue, faced with Shia Iran’s aggressive challenge in the region.
Frustration with Palestinian leaders has grown steadily, for their criticism of Arab countries normalising ties with Israel. Once Saudi Arabia crosses the Rubicon, other Arab countries are likely to follow and normalise ties with Israel. On its part, Israel has worked behind the scenes, in tandem with the Trump Administration to strengthen ties with moderate Arab nations, in pursuit of its long-cherished goal of seeking recognition and acceptance in the region.
Growing Saudi-Israel Ties: Why Is Saudi Arabia Afraid To ‘Come Out Of The Closet’?
Saudi Arabia appears to have adopted a two-track policy towards Israel – engaging with Israeli informally, encouraging UAE and Bahrain to normalise ties but maintaining its traditional posture in public.
It is still unsure whether to come out of the closet and acknowledge its growing ties with Israel. A backlash from conservative sections of domestic public opinion deters the Saudis – and cautious steps, taken away from public glare, seem to guide its current policy.
Diplomatic ties with Israel, when it happens, will help MBS smoothen relations with the incoming Biden Administration. President-elect Biden has been critical of Saudi human rights abuses in its war with Yemen and the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
For Netanyahu, the media focus on his meeting with MBS has provided a welcome distraction from his domestic problems which include a decision by his rival, Defence Minister Benny Grant, to set up a Commission of Enquiry into the purchase of submarines and missile boats from Germany valued at USD 2 billion. This deal, allegedly, involved kickbacks and has got top billing as the ‘most egregious corruption scandal’ in Israel’s history.
Why Most Non-Arab Islamic Countries Will Be Wary Of Domestic Opinion Before Recognising Israel
In this evolving situation, Saudi Arabia is navigating a course that is a complex mix of domestic and external factors, including the fundamental question whether formal ties with Israel will firewall Saudi Arabia’s other concerns.
On the domestic front, MBS has taken several historic steps to loosen the strict Islamic mores that have been welcomed by the Western-educated younger generation but frowned upon by the conservative clerical establishment. MBS has trampled on many toes, sending royal family members into detention, extorting billions from rich royal family members and businessmen and throwing critics into prison, on his way up the greasy ladder of power.
On the external front, Iran looms large as a regional competitor, and Turkey a growing rival for leadership in the Islamic world. Turkey has had formal relations with Israel for decades and can hardly object to Israel-Saudi Arabia formal ties.
Traditional fraternal and close ties with Islamic countries like Pakistan have frayed. Pakistan PM Imran Khan has acknowledged that his country is under pressure to normalise ties with Israel and has rejected the suggestion, mindful, no doubt of his country’s radical Islamic constituency. Most non-Arab Islamic countries will also keep a close eye on domestic radical Islamic opinion before recognising Israel.
What Saudi Arabia May Have To Contend With In Dealing With Israel
Israel’s acknowledged prowess in the military, intelligence and technological sectors is an attraction for Saudi Arabia, as Israeli assistance in these domains will consolidate the authoritarian Saudi regime and build defences against Iran. On Palestine, there is a domestic public discourse that makes it difficult to abandon the cause and leave their future in the hands of Israel which will never offer full sovereignty to Palestine.
Saudi Arabia may also have to wrestle with the impact that formal ties with Israel will have on its considerable soft power – lubricated with oil money – in the Islamic world, based on its religious leadership role as the Islamic holy land, with the Saudi King as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest places – Mecca and Medina.
The anti-Israeli narrative built over decades rests on the denial of Palestinian rights to a sovereign nation and Jewish conspiracy theories against Muslims. Formal ties with Israel will break down this consensus even further, and cracks in the Islamic world – that have already appeared – will widen further. Ties with Israel will also be seen by the Saudi royal family through the prism of regime survival.
In Israel-Saudi Ties, Where Does India Fit In?
Establishment of Israel-Saudi Arabia formal ties may be some distance away, but when it happens, India will surely welcome the move between two strategic partners.
India has nurtured good relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain and will benefit from peace and stability in West Asia. India had earlier welcomed the Abraham Accords and reiterated its support for a two-state solution on the Palestinian issue, and will, no doubt, welcome the agreement via which Israel and Saudi Arabia formally engage as sovereign nations.
(The author is a former Ambassador and Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs; he is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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