Saudi-Israel normalization: What's at stake?

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A plaque used to reserve the seat of the delegation from Israel, is seen during the UNESCO Extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in Riyadh on September 11, 2023. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)
A plaque used to reserve the seat of the delegation from Israel, is seen during the UNESCO Extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in Riyadh on September 11, 2023. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s growing momentum for what could be a historic Israel-Saudi Arabia peace deal.

But why now?

"I anticipate that it’s negotiated now because a lot of people are instrumentalizing the potential of Saudi-Israel normalization for political purposes."

Talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel aren’t new, but now the Biden Administration is looking to help broker the potential deal.

"You really only can normalize relations once, right? So, this is a card that you can play once, and once it’s played, that’s it," Yousef Munayyer says.

And when that happens, where could that leave the Palestinians?

Today, On Point: We look at what's at stake for Israel, Saudi Arabia, Palestinians and the United States.


Nimrod Novik, Israel fellow at Israel Policy Forum. Former foreign policy senior advisor to Israel’s former Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Member of the Executive Committee of Commanders for Israel’s Security.

Aziz Alghasian, fellow at the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation (SEPAD) project at Lancaster University. His research focuses on Saudi foreign policy towards Israel, and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) international relations.

Martin Indyk, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel. Lowy distinguished fellow in U.S.-Middle East diplomacy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as President Barack Obama's special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from July 2013 to June 2014.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: At the United Nations Summit in New York on Wednesday, President Joe Biden met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and made this bold declaration.

JOE BIDEN: 75 years ago, the first Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, after declaring independence, used a phrase that I've quoted all very often.

He said that the world stands, "If the world stands with Israel, the dream of generations will be fulfilled."

CHAKRABARTI: 75 years ago, that dream was the founding of the Israeli state, following the devastation of the Holocaust and World War II. Biden's dream looked forward, to a possible new alignment of powers in the Middle East quite different today than it was in 1948.

BIDEN: It includes building a more stable and prosperous Middle East that over time is beginning to occur, and through historic initiatives that have begun in previous administrations. Including, most recently, the Indian-Middle East-European Economic Corridor, which I think has enormous promise after the G20 meeting in India, which is going to connect India and Europe through Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel.

I think it's a big deal, and we're working on a lot more together today we're going to discuss some of the hard issues.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, among the nations mentioned by Biden, one in particular stands out in the eyes of Israel. Here's Benjamin Netanyahu.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I think that under your leadership, Mr. President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

And I think such a peace would go a long way, first to advance the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state. And advance a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This is something within our reach.

CHAKRABARTI: It should be noted that under Netanyahu, Israeli settlement building in the Palestinian territories has ramped up with his government's full support.

Also, to note, Saudi Arabia has thus far never formally recognized Israeli sovereignty, ever since its 1947 vote against the United Nations partition plan for Palestine. But on Wednesday, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, made it seem as if rapprochement could well be on the horizon. He was on Fox News.

MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN: Every day we get closer. It seems it's, for the first time a real one, serious. We're going to see how it goes. Now we don't have a relation with Israel, but if Biden administration succeeded to make, I believe, the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War, then we're going to start a relationship, and that relationship is going to be continuous regardless of who's running Israel.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Magna Chakrabarti. The coordinated messaging from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States may be just that. Messaging. However, a U. S. brokered normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia could actually be in the works. And if successful, it would be an historic moment.

What will it take to get there, and what is at stake for Israel, the U. S., Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian people? That's what we're going to explore today. And joining us is Nimrod Novik. He's the Israel Fellow at the Israel Policy Forum, and former Foreign Policy Senior Advisor to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Nimrod, welcome to the program.

NIMROD NOVIK: Thanks for having me. Also with us today is Aziz Alghasian. He's a Fellow at SEPAD. It's a project at Lancaster University, and it stands for the Sectarianism, Proxies, and Desectarianization Project. His focus, research focuses on Saudi foreign policy towards Israel and Middle East and North African international relations.

Aziz, welcome to you.

AZIZ ALGHASIAN: It's good to be with you, Meghna. Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: First of all, I want to go through some of the things that have been leaked about the current efforts between the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Just this month, or changes that we've seen just this month, because they've come rather rapidly.

First of all, there was the nomination of Jack Lew as U. S. ambassador to Israel. He's a former White House chief of staff. And then also in September, we have the U. S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken having met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.

And then, interestingly, there's this visit to Saudi Arabia by a high-level Palestinian delegation that included Abbas. So it does seem there's a big flurry of action going on right now. And Nimrod, let me start with you. Why are we seeing this momentum currently?

NOVIK: I believe that it's a, almost a coincidence. It all got some wind and life into it when President Biden decided that he wishes to pursue it. For my Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, this has been a lifelong dream. From the Saudi side, we've heard indications of interest going back several years.

But it took the American to decide to dive into it and sit in the driver's seat in order to get the three working on this very, very complex initiative.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Then Aziz, your same thoughts on that, or your thoughts on that same question.

ALGHASIAN: It's also very interesting because I do share this notion that a lot of the times it is this file, this push for normalization and the American visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel.

But in particularly to Saudi Arabia, a lot of the times it's really because of other files. So there are other issues that are taking place in Saudi Arabia. You have the Yemeni file, which is very important for Saudi Arabia now and Saudi security. And that's something that Saudi security, national security and American national security officials are working on.

And you have other files in Sudan and within this framework, within this kind of relationship, we see the bringing up of this push for Saudis' really normalization. So it seems to be this file is band wagoning almost on to these other files. But and interestingly the Saudis, just what my colleague Nimrod mentioned, the Saudis have indicated some interest, but in fact, I think historically, the Saudis have never kept the door closed on normalization with Israel, they've always kept that door open, especially when it's being brought from the United States, or if it's a U.S. initiative.

And the Saudis have always said, they're expressed their willingness to normalize relations, but they've always made it conditional, they've always put the conditions. And I think a lot of the times many people seem to overlook these conditions. conditional, they've always put the conditions. And I think a lot of the times many people seem to overlook these conditions. So I think that's worth mentioning, also. There's a lot of what I'd say fluidity in this complex situation, which makes it really difficult for many people to try to pin down exactly what is happening, but it also what makes it really interesting to really follow.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So it seems though, as if perhaps that pattern may be repeating itself now, right? Because due to some of the parts of the negotiations or talks that have been leaked over the past several weeks, right?

We see that an agreement could potentially, or it's being discussed that it might include that Israel and Saudi Arabia would sign a NATO like defense treaty. The U. S. would be able to, or then sell state of the art weaponry to Saudi Arabia, and interestingly, assist in Saudi's development of a civilian nuclear program that would include the right to domestic uranium enrichment, and then in return, Saudis would normalize ties with Israel, help end the war in Yemen, the Yemen file, as you just said, and provide mass, massive financial assistance to the Palestinians if Israel puts a cap on settlement activity.

Nimrod, those, I don't know, perhaps one doesn't wish to be cynical in potentially historic moments, but it seems as if each one of those factors in the negotiations, you can see why it might easily end in stalemate or just a rejection of an agreement.

NOVIK: Yes, your skepticism is justified but the enormity of the reward justifies the effort.

There is a sense, especially, Israeli media is hungry for a headline every day on this on progress on this on this multi-lateral track. It's not going to be that way. It's going to take time. It's going to take months to negotiate. You just mentioned a few of the hurdles that have to be overcome.

Some of them have nothing to do with us Israelis but are also some of the expectations of the Saudis from the U. S. Affect our security and our security establishment has already in private expressed itself on them. Whether the U. S. and Saudi Arabia sign a mutual defense treaty, that certainly is none of our business.

But if the supply of weapons to Saudi Arabia undermines the legislated American commitment to Israel's qualitative military edge in the region, I think that would be a very serious subject for discussion. And the same goes for enrichment of uranium on Saudi soil, something the U.S., U. S. And all nuclear powers thus far have rejected.

And Iran has been the only violator thus far, but on the Palestinian file, which is what most of us Israelis are focused more, I doubt very much, but Aziz is in a better position to know whether the Saudis, Saudi leadership will be satisfied with just a freeze on settlements and some funding for the fledgling Palestinian Authority.

I think that the expectation is for far more than that for Israel to do. But I also think that it's not just the Saudis that will insist on it. I think it will be primarily Washington.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Aziz, we had just spoken about some of the aspects or parts that are under negotiation, including whether Israel would agree to let Saudi Arabia develop its own civilian nuclear program. Now, before I ask you what you think about that, the Israeli government itself has spoken quite clearly on this already.

Just last month, Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs, Ron Dermer, was on the PBS NewsHour here in the United States. And he talked about what Israel would need to consider as the Saudis are calling for a civilian nuclear program as, for them, I should say, for the Saudis, as part of the negotiations.

RON DERMER: We're not going to agree to any nuclear weapons program with any of our neighbors. And the question will be, when it comes to the details of an agreement, what are the safeguards? And what happens if they take another path? If they take a path with the Chinese or something else, we have to think through that whole thing, but let's not underestimate the impact that an Israeli-Saudi peace agreement could have on the region and the world.

I think if Saudi, if you get a Saudi Israeli peace, you're going to have several other Arab countries and Muslim countries are going to follow. I think it's the ultimate game changer.

CHAKRABARTI: Aziz, will you respond to that?

ALGHASIAN: Yes, this is what Saudi sees in the United States and sees in this real push for peace, that it's an opportunity now.

And that this is the price, that the price for normalization with Saudi Arabia, that as Ron Dermer said, and as others really said that how much of a game changer. This may be well, the peace with Saudi Arabia or normalization to Saudi Arabia is not going to come for free, and it's not only going to be something that Nimrod alluded to or mentioned on the Palestinian front, but it's also something that the United States is going to have to pay, as well.

Saudi Arabia right now senses an immense amount of confidence. It's not the Saudi Arabia of before, which was a little bit timid, perhaps. This is a Saudi Arabia that has more agency in a different world sphere. And that quite frankly, seeing what happened in the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and the UAE, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and then later on Morocco and Sudan, one can say they the United States arm twisted Sudan and Morocco into normalization a little bit. But I think what Saudi deduced, gained or thought from that Abraham Accords, that was not too long ago, was that while normalization will come, means that we could get something very large from the United States, as well.

And what has happened is that it may have paved the way between normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. But I think it complicated the way between Israel and Saudi Arabia, because it shifted the burden of concessions from Israel to the United States. Now, it's the United States that has to make Saudi offers, and in that offers, in these negotiations, Saudi Arabia is calling, dictating the tone.

It senses that it has the leverage. And the leverage before historically, and I think maybe Nimrod I wonder if you will agree with this or not, but historically I think Saudi Arabia was used, was people wanted Saudi Arabia to pressure the United States into pressuring Israel to make some sort of concessions or to deal with the Palestinians.

Now, it's actually the complete reversal. The Saudi leverage is based on what Saudi will not do, which is basically not normalize. And all these Biden and Netanyahu and others are trying to do everything they can to get Saudi to do something. So it senses the leverage it has, and it also senses that this is not a matter of urgency for it.

It's not that Israel, that it sees Israel as a strategic kind of, it does see Israel as strategic utility. It does see that it could be good partners. But I don't, I think there's more to it. And I think this is the price that they want.

CHAKRABARTI: Forgive me for jumping in there. But both of you actually said quite a lot.

And I need, I would like to pinpoint a couple of details. So first of all, Nimrod, let me turn back to you. When Aziz said that with the Abraham Accords, which we'll talk about more in a minute, the burden for concessions shifted to the United States. I actually wonder if that, in a different way is one of the reasons for the sense of urgency right now, because under the current administration, the Biden administration here in the United States, there is a high amount of motivation to get some sort of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

We don't know what's going to happen after 2024 in this country. We may have a different administration altogether. And the question of motivation, the motivation may go back down to zero. So what do you think of that? Is that part of what's at play here?

NOVIK: Yes, there's no doubt. Domestic politics on all three parties play a role in this.

And what we heard Saudi officials whisper is a calculus. That if you are going to conclude a bilateral security treaty with the United States, which has to go through Congress and be approved by two thirds of the Senate, a Democratic president can get Republicans to vote for it.

A Republican president will not be able to get Democrats too. And therefore, let's do it with Biden, because we don't know what will happen down the road. So yes, domestic politics serve as an accelerator. And it's also the case in Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu is in serious trouble.


We'll talk about that for sure a little bit later.

NOVIK: Okay. Sure.

CHAKRABARTI: So this actually gives us the chance. Again, I didn't mean to interrupt you there, but the domestic situation in Israel is also a huge part of this story and I want to be able to give it its appropriate time. So we'll focus on that in just a couple of minutes.

But also, the other huge issue here that both of you have mentioned is the question of how these negotiations factor in the Palestinian people. And actually, in order to look at that, what we're going to do is go back in time a little bit, because Aziz, you had mentioned the Abraham Accords. So in order to get a little bit of that historic perspective, we spoke to Ambassador Martin Indyk.

He's currently the Lowy Distinguished Fellow in U. S. Middle East Diplomacy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as the U. S. Ambassador to Israel from 1995 to 1997, and then again from 2000 to 2001. Now, in July of 2000 folks might remember that President Bill Clinton invited his then Israeli leader Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Camp David for discussions of a possible peace accord.

Those talks quickly and dramatically collapsed. And Indyk tells us that he looks back and says that failure made peace in the Middle East almost unimaginable for the foreseeable future.

MARTIN INDYK: Since the intifada that took place after the Camp David summit back in 2000, the relationship had deteriorated fairly dramatically, and essentially the opportunity to try to make a breakthrough to Israeli-Palestinian peace ended with the end of the Clinton administration.

CHAKRABARTI: Then in 2013, President Barack Obama and his then newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry called on Ambassador Indyk to once again try to help steer the Israel-Palestinian relationship toward peace.

INDYK: John Kerry when he was appointed Secretary of State, in the second Obama administration, decided that he was going to try once more. Not because he thought that the chances were particularly good, but because he thought that if he didn't try, the prospect for getting to an Israeli-Palestinian peace would basically disappear for the foreseeable future.

CHAKRABARTI: Kerry managed to convince Netanyahu and then Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to resume negotiations. Ambassador Indyk calls the effort a hail Mary to reach a final status agreement between the two sides. And over the next nine months, Indyk and the United States listened as Israel and Palestine, Palestinians presented their various positions on critical issues including borders, refugees, the status of Jerusalem, and security agreements.

And Indyk tells us those conversations helped prepare a new set of parameters that could serve as the basis for the continuing negotiations now. But back in 2013, the successes stopped there.

INDYK: In the meantime, Netanyahu was engaged in extensive settlement activity that really soured the negotiations. And I came to the conclusion that in effect, both leaders, Abu Mazen and Netanyahu, were looking for a way to blame the other side for the breakdown of negotiations, rather than looking for a way to achieve a breakthrough.

And the critical moment came in the spring of 2014, when President Obama presented our ideas, through Abu Mazen, in the hope of getting a positive response from him. And Abu Mazen simply didn't respond.

CHAKRABARTI: Indyk referring there to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. The U. S. brokered framework backed key Palestinian demands, including that the territory of the future Palestine be based on borders set before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Reports at the time suggested that it was not enough for President Abbas to reverse his position on recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. So negotiations ended in stalemate, and the U. S. effort also ended in June 2014. So now here we are, almost a decade later, and, or I should say yeah, a decade later.

The Israel Palestinian relationship currently faces a particularly tense moment with Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister. In recent years, though, Israel has been more successful with negotiating with other Arab nations. So we asked the ambassador, how did the Israeli-Palestinian relations affect Israeli relationships with Arab countries a decade ago?

And how has that changed over the years?

INDYK: In those days, the Arab position was that first there had to be an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, and then the Arab states would make peace and normalize with Israel. And this was supposed to bolster the Palestinian negotiating position, put them in a position where they could say, if you make peace with us, Israel, you'll have peace with the whole Arab world.

That was a nice theory. In practice, it made no perceptible difference. And I think the Palestinians were overconfident in their belief that the Arab states would just stick by that forever. And the Arab states got tired of it, got tired of funding a process Palestinian authority that seemed to go nowhere, a peace process that seemed to be achieving no progress, and they wanted to get on.

CHAKRABARTI: As a result, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates signed the Abraham Accords with Israel in 2020, with no measures requiring a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Ambassador Indyk believes that the Current negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia could be on a similar path, that while Israeli-Palestinian relations will play some role, it may not hold the same weight it once did.

INDYK: It's true that normalization is affected by what happens on the Palestinian track, even though these Arab countries have decided to go ahead. So the Abraham Accord countries, UAE, Morocco, Bahrain have slowed their normalization process in some respects, in terms of meeting with formal meetings with Israelis, for example because of the situation on the ground in the West Bank and in Gaza and in Jerusalem.

But on the other hand, it seems to me that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman is not going to condition his deal with Israel and with the United States. On significant progress between the Israelis and Palestinians, he needs cover, Palestinian cover. He's negotiating that now with the Palestinians, but in the end, I believe that the failure to make formal progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will not hold up the Israeli Palestinian peace deal.

There are plenty of other things that may, but I don't believe that's a deal breaker.

CHAKRABARTI: Martin Indyk, former U. S. ambassador to Israel under the Clinton administration. And between July 2013 to 2014, he served as U. S. special envoy for the Israeli Palestinian negotiations. Okay, Aziz, let me turn back to you here because here's how I would put it.

From what I hear from Indyk, the normal, the potential normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia is not, underscore not, the same thing as a peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The two are not equal. One can happen without the other, as Indyk has said. I do wonder as settlement building continues apace in Saudi, in Palestinian territories, is it possible here that the door could be closed on Palestinians hopes if Israel decides its own self-interest in achieving normalization with excuse me, if Saudi Arabia decides that its own self-interest in achieving normalization with Israel is more important than its continued support of the Palestinians.

ALGHASIAN: If that was the pure logic, then I think Saudi Arabia would have normalized relations years ago.

The reality is that Saudi Arabia is not like other countries in the Arab world. I think there were other officials that said, the reason being is that this opened horizons or potentially will open horizons. That Saudi Arabia can then, if you normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, you normalize relations with the rest of the Muslim world, and you normalize relations with the other Arab states.

And to be honest with you, I also have doubts with that personally, because there's a lot of domestic issues. And so the situation is complex. Saudi Arabia has a very significant history, Saudi Arabia has a very significant identity, and that identity is predicated on being the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and then really being a Muslim country, irrespective of all these changes, this notion of Islam and the leader of Islam plays a particular role in its foreign policy.

Now the situation, so I don't think you could negate completely a Palestinian issue. The aspect, the complexities is that I think, one of the things that we have overlooked in this discussion is that a lot of the times that Saudi has made demands from the United States, but even Secretary Blinken himself said that, "Okay, that there has to be a Palestinian component and that Palestinian component is a Saudi demand." Which will then work for us for our two-state solution, etc. But the point here is that, I think Saudis have been made very clear that there is a demand.

Now, what is not clear is that what is this demand in itself? This is the aspect that is up in the air.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. As it is up in the air we also have to take a break at this moment. So when we come back we'll talk more about the Palestinian question here. And also as I said, about the domestic situation in Israel right now and how much that's a factor.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: We had just talked about the demands or the conditions that Saudi Arabia might place on Israel to achieve normalization. And of course, the Palestinian question is quite significant among them.

I will note that as we discussed previously, that in the Abraham Accords, it didn't, the Palestinian question ultimately was just dropped and Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and UAE, so at least two Gulf states there agreed to sign those accords without any progress on Israel-Palestinian relations.

But as Aziz said before the break, Saudi Arabia may be different as it considers itself the leader of the Arab states and the home of the holiest of holy locations in the Muslim world. So let's actually hear from what the leader of Saudi Arabia himself has said about this. During his interview with Fox News recently, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spoke on the role that Israel-Palestinian relations will play in the current negotiations.

MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN: There is approach from President Biden administration to get to that point. For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part and we have a good negotiation to continue. Till now, we got to see where it will go. We hope that it will reach a place that it will ease the life of the Palestinians and get Israel as a player in Middle East.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Nimrod, I'd like to get, of course, the Israeli view on this because I hear Mohammed bin Salman there saying, yes, the Palestinian issue is important for Saudi Arabia. They want to ease the life of Palestinians, but that is deliberately nonspecific language, right? As Aziz was saying, there's no detail yet as to what the actual terms of an agreement would be.

How does that language land in the ears of Israelis right now?

NOVIK: You know, Israel is not a black box, we open up and we have different views.


NOVIK: So I will give you any Israeli perspective and I would say that I'm very much hopeful that our understanding of what's going on is correct.

And that is to say that the Saudi leadership prefers not to dive into the Israeli-Palestinian issue before they have secured the Saudi American one. So there's negotiations about the three items that the kingdom has presented Washington that it needs in this, in the context of this mega deal, but they have not presented yet what are their expectations regarding the Palestinians.

The Americans have been more forthcoming, and they have some expectations. They certainly want to make sure, and I hope they insist on it, and I hope the Saudis do too, that in the context of this deal, things happen that revive the hope for an eventual two-state solution. We are on the opposite path right now.

We are sliding into an ever conflicted, bloody, one state reality. And here is an opportunity with the importance of the Saudi component of historical proportions, to maybe get Israeli politics to embrace a change of course. It is a complicated situation because the Prime Minister have created a coalition of self-proclaimed homophobes, Jewish supremacists, and messianic annexationists.

Because these were the only people who were willing to legislate a resolution for his legal predicaments.


NOVIK: He's standing trial on bribery and other all kinds of corruption allegations, indictments. And they were willing to legislate a solution, a mega awareness, awakening of the Israeli liberal democratic majority has blocked it thus far with huge demonstrations tomorrow night.

So we will be there again for the 38th consecutive week.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Nimrod, let me just jump in here for a second to clarify for our listeners. Forgive me for interrupting you for what you're talking about here. As Nimrod has been saying, there has been months and months of massive demonstrations against the Netanyahu government for their first proposed and now passed judicial, massive judicial overhaul that would completely change the legal system or the judicial system in Israel.

Interestingly, that issue is propelling Israel towards a constitutional crisis which is continuing, as Nimrod was saying, to have Israelis pour into the streets in defense of their own democracy.

CHAKRABARTI: Now that, Nimrod, I'm glad you brought that up because, of course, that makes me wonder if A) two things.

So let's just start with the first one. Say some kind of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia were achieved under a Netanyahu government, that would be like a godsend to him, would it not? Because it would, could it at least meaningfully change political discussions in Israel about Netanyahu as a leader and about the future of the Israeli state?

And change it away from the catastrophe around the judicial reforms.

NOVIK: You're absolutely right, provided that the Saudis and the Americans have no interest in a substantial, in substantial Israeli measures towards the Palestinians. The current Israeli coalition will not tolerate anything towards the Palestinians, anything that strengthens the Palestinian authority.

These people have a very different vision, only Jewish sovereignty, including over the millions of Palestinians who live on the West Bank and Gaza. Should the deal be contingent on serious measures that revive the hope for a two-state solution? Netanyahu will have to change his coalition and then we will have the reward is going to be even more enormous.

Because the entire assault on our democracy will be thrown into the trash can of history, while at the same time we get the enormous reward of normalization with Saudi Arabia, and a change, of course, for a gradual separation between Israelis and Palestinians into an eventual two-state solution.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, Aziz, let me turn back to you, because again on the public language at least that we're hearing right now from Mohammed bin Salman, for as long as he is vague, about what Saudi Arabia would wish to see regarding the welfare of the Palestinian people, given the single mindedness of Netanyahu and his supporters and his current government regarding their vision for Israel and Palestine, settlement building, the complete eradication of any return to thinking about a two state solution.

It is rigid and so single minded that nothing short of specific demands from Saudi Arabia would force, a moment of reality in terms of how these nations are speaking to each other or how they're speaking to each other through the United States.

ALGHASIAN: It just speaks again to the complex issue.

I think historically Saudi has always made this kind of position, and historically it also didn't interject itself into the intricacies of such a Palestinian-Israeli-American brokered deal. Their position was the following. Whatever the Palestinians accept, we will accept. This is the historical position.

But I think now what really makes this seem to be a significant push also, or some sort of reality, is that it seems that they're not talking about statehood, but we're talking about concessions, and this seems to be that even with the Palestinians and Saudis and hopefully the U.S, there seems to be an aspect of pragmatism here and reality at the same time.

But at the same time, they're not willing to put themselves into the mix because that's just not the way they do things. That's just not the way they do things. So Saudi now it goes back to one of the first points that I mentioned earlier was that it's in a way in C mode.

If the stars align and it's a good deal, or some sort of deal that, that enables Saudi to build its legitimacy of its relationship with Israel, which means, which has to have a Palestinian component, then in addition to the American demands or the demands from the United States, then you could see, it's become, then that is something that could happen, but in my view on this is that I don't see Saudi trying to induce something.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm sorry to interrupt again. It's just we've got a little bit of delay on our connection. So my apologies to both of you. I have a brief question for you Aziz, before we begin to wrap up this conversation, something, go back something you said a little earlier again, because this Palestinian question is so important in these current negotiations.

The traditional thinking is that national self-interest really ultimately trumps all in these kinds of negotiations, but I wonder, because you had mentioned Saudi Arabia as a leader amongst Muslim countries, is it possible here that national self-interest might recede in favor of let's call it the self-interest of the Muslim belief in the ummah?

Of the global community, of the welfare of Muslims everywhere. Because I want to really understand, I've only got a minute for you here on this, but how does that concept play in this moment?

ALGHASIAN: This is a very good question and I'll try to be as brief as possible. Now, historically, this is indeed, this is something that, this Saudi Arabia is different than the previous Saudi Arabia.

The current Saudi Arabia now, say we are different. We're not going to put something. We're not going to put other people's interests in front of us. And I think that's consistent. But the whole idea is that it is in Saudi's interest to have a Palestinian component. That's the issue. The Palestinian component is infused in Saudi identity in different ways.

And it plays its role in Saudi society and Saudi projection. And therefore, it's complex. It's not just a matter of something for the Palestinians. It's something for Saudi Arabia as well. Normalization, for example, is not a very, is not a very good term. It's not a very liked term here in Saudi Arabia.

Now, Saudi, I think what made it more rational now, thinking as in a more self-interested, is that it put other people's interests before, but Saudi also has a very rich history of thinking of its own interests, too. So it's something that is a constant balancing that Saudi Arabia has is that okay, it's balancing between its identity and the obligations it identifies itself with.

At the same time, with self-interest. And it's a constant process that's balancing. So that's what makes Saudi very elusive, I think, to understand.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I appreciate that very much. And we only have just a minute or two left in this conversation. So Nimrod, let me ask you, what would you like to see happen in the next couple of weeks?

Or what information do you need to see in order to help understand what direction these negotiations might be headed?

NOVIK: I think it'll take longer than a couple of weeks, but what I would like to understand is the Saudi position on the list of expectations presented to them by the Palestinians, which has already taken place.

What we already know is that the Saudis basically told the Palestinians, don't bring us your expectations of the U.S. That is something you need to deal with Americans directly. And we don't want to get in the mix of that. Bring us only your expectations from the Israelis. What will it be that is realistically attainable?

And that's changed course, and that change dynamics, obviously freeze and settlements. Obviously, some additional transition of territory to the Palestinian authority, obviously reigning in on settler violence against Palestinians. But how do you Palestinians wish to package this into a realistic something knowing that a two-state solution is still over the horizon?

CHAKRABARTI: Is that possible, you think?

NOVIK: Oh, yes. I don't think it's that difficult. I think it's a matter of political decision. I think the Palestinians have done their homework and are doing, I think that we heard that in Riyadh, they are doing their homework, at least that's the main reason for which they have not presented their own list.

And the Americans are doing their homework. And so do Israelis, the prime minister, Ron Dermer, and others. What will be difficult is squaring this circle. Whatever list comes out of Washington, Riyadh, and Ramallah will not pass the current Israeli coalition.


NOVIK: Is the prime minister prepared in the context of a Saudi deal to get rid of his coalition partners, bring in centrist parties, and in the process trash the legislative assault on our democracy?

If that's the case, a year from now, we're going to be in a very good place.

This program aired on September 18, 2023.


Headshot of Jonathan Chang

Jonathan Chang Producer/Director, On Point
Jonathan is a producer/director at On Point.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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