Saudi-Israeli normalization drifts further away as Riyadh courts Iran

The planned visit by a Hamas delegation to Riyadh reflects Saudi Arabia’s new diplomatic priorities, which do not include normalization with Israel.

Meeting in Jerusalem with US Sen. Lindsey Graham on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel wants normalization and peace with Saudi Arabia. “We view [normalization] as perhaps a giant leap toward ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. This agreement could have monumental consequences, historic consequences both for Israel, for Saudi Arabia, for the region and for the world,” said Netanyahu, reiterating his election campaign mantra that he was working to expand the circle of peace and add more countries to the 2020 Abraham Accords.

Netanyahu’s optimism on Saudi Arabia was met with skepticism by Israeli security officials. “The strangest thing,” a former senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “is that despite all the writing on the wall and flashing red warning lights, Netanyahu continues to talk about ‘expanding the circle of peace’ and the option that Israel will soon add Saudi Arabia to the Abraham Accords, partially or completely.”

The official’s remarks were prompted by reports that a delegation of senior Hamas members was heading to Saudi Arabia this week in yet another dramatic sign of the recent Tehran-Riyadh rapprochement. As he spoke, reports emerged that the Saudis were outraged by the leak of this rare visit and either postponed or canceled it. Still, one way or another, it is clear that Saudi Arabia is switching sides from a firm stand in the American-Israeli camp toward the Iran-led “axis of resistance” of which the Islamist Gaza-based Hamas is a respected member.

Saudi Arabia and Iran renewed diplomatic relations last month, and the Hamas delegation visit would have been the first to the kingdom in almost a decade. In parallel, Riyadh has been also busy rehabilitating its ties with Damascus. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan is set to visit Syria on Tuesday, the first official visit since the beginning of the war in Syria.

“The Saudis are spitting on him [Netanyahu], and he convinces himself and the public that it’s nothing but rain,” a former senior Israeli political source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

The “salami method” is a term coined by the Israeli political right to describe the strategy it attributed to PLO Chair Yasser Arafat when he signed the Oslo Accord with Israel 30 years ago. It was based on a theory according to which having given up his attempt to defeat Israel in direct confrontation, Arafat was opting for its attrition and piecemeal defeat, slice by slice, slowly but surely. Top Israeli security officials are now using this term to describe what they regard as Saudi Arabia’s pivot to court the “axis of evil,” as Israel dubs the Iran-led coalition.

A senior Israeli security source pointed to this week’s official invitation to Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud to visit Iran, a move he described as “a dramatic event by any standard.” At the same time, Iran’s relations are warming with other countries in the Gulf and the Middle East, including those that have signed agreements with Israel (the United Arab Emirates).

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is visiting Saudi Arabia for an iftar meal to break the daily fast at the palace on Tuesday. Past Saudi efforts to broker a truce between his Fatah faction and its rival Hamas have failed and contributed to Riyadh’s long-strained relations with Hamas.

Whatever the reason for the planned Hamas visit and its subsequent cancellation or postponement, Hamas has been experiencing a regional revival. From an isolated, besieged organization whose activists were persecuted in significant parts of the Middle East, Hamas is edging toward a consensus of sorts.

“This is also reflected in statements made by Hamas leaders vis-a-vis Israel,” a senior Israeli military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “They have changed their tone; they are demonstrating self-confidence and are returning to the language of threats. It does not mean they are going to war, but it does mean they feel much freer than they did.”

In addition to these regional shifts, the realignment of the world’s leading powers in the region — the dramatic thaw between Tehran and Moscow, the China-mediated thaw between Tehran and Riyadh, and the gradual US withdrawal — are all clear game changers.

“What do you expect,” a very senior former diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “If the Americans leave, the Russians approach Iran, and the new Israeli prime minister is not invited to Washington and given a cold shoulder? The Saudis or Emiratis cannot be expected to continue to rely on a strategic alliance that is falling apart before their eyes. In the Middle East, either you sit around the table or you are placed on the table as the main course. There is no middle ground.”

What, then, is Netanyahu assuming when he repeatedly talks about moves to “expand the circle of peace”? He is either spouting a hollow mantra being a world record holder in such spins, or Netanyahu knows something that we don’t.

Netanyahu may be trying to fulfill the conditions set by the Biden administration in return for the coveted White House invitation. These include a halt to the controversial judicial overhaul to weaken the nation’s courts, easing of Israeli-Palestinian tensions in east Jerusalem and a silencing of the provocateurs in his hard-line government. He has already banned Jews from visiting the flashpoint Temple Mount during the final 10 days of Ramadan, and appears to have temporarily exiled his son Yair, who has greatly angered Washington with his conspiracy theories and accusations. If he backs off the judicial overhaul, which has prompted almost four months of mass pro-democracy demonstrations throughout Israel, he may be on the right track with the Americans — and possibly the Saudis.

Israeli-Saudi normalization depends, first and foremost, on the White House and President Joe Biden’s willingness to ease tensions in relations with Riyadh, provide the Saudis with equipment they seek and boost the Abraham Accords orchestrated by his predecessor, Donald Trump. The chances of that happening are slim. Netanyahu lacks domestic support from his ultranationalist allies for such conciliatory moves, and his rivals — opposition leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid — are still refusing to lend their support in order to save him. But he can try, or at least pretend to be trying.

Check Also

Federalization Of Serbia Is Key To Stabilizing The Region – OpEd

The 17-hour war that took place in Banjska village of Zveçan, in the north of …