What the Saudis think about when they think about peace with Israel

Their newly opened airspace has nothing to do with Israel, they say, and normalization can’t happen until there’s a Palestinian state. But actually, obviously, it’s all about Iran

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

A Muslim pilgrim walks in front of a welcoming banner upon his arrival at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
A Muslim pilgrim walks in front of a welcoming banner upon his arrival at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

This Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

As of this writing, Israeli planes are not yet routinely overflying Saudi airspace to and from India, China and other destinations. This year, at least, Israeli Muslims were not able to take Israeli charter flights direct from Ben Gurion Airport to Saudi Arabia for the hajj.

But on the eve of US President Joe Biden’s visit to the kingdom last weekend, the Saudis announced that their airspace is now open in principle to “all air carriers,” and they are widely reported to have signaled agreement for direct Israel-Saudi flights to the hajj next year.

Israeli, American and Saudi leaders’ public declarations on these air travel advances have been contradictory. Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Biden hailed what they asserted was a tangible “first step” to hoped-for wider Israeli-Saudi normalization; Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, in complete contrast, asserted that the opened airspace had “nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel” and was “not in any way a precursor to any further steps” toward normalization.

Clearly, even absolute monarchies have to prepare their citizenries for radical reversals in their regional policies. After decades of institutional antisemitism and hostility to Israel, the Jews and their national homeland are not going to be transformed into allies overnight.

But with all due respect to Prince Faisal’s denials, it is not clear that there are any beneficiaries apart from Israel from the Saudis’ newly liberalized overflight rules. And any day now, it would seem, the pilot of an El Al or Arkia airliner will make radio contact with a Saudi air traffic controller, and routine, formal civilian interaction between the two countries will be underway — indeed, a first, small step on the path to wider potential normalization.

Where things go from there, however, is wide open to question. In a CNN interview coinciding with Biden’s visit to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia, a second Saudi minister, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir, allowed that peace with Israel is “possible” and a “strategic option,” but made plain it was anything but a done deal.

Al-Jubeir directly conditioned peace with Israel on Palestinian statehood, stressing Saudi commitment to “a two-state settlement, with a Palestinian state in the occupied territories with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

But the Saudis had tacitly blessed the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain striking full peace deals with Israel, within the 2020 Abraham Accords framework, despite the absence of Israeli-Palestinian progress and despite the Palestinian Authority’s bitter screams of betrayal.

Israeli exhibitors receive visitors at their stand on the opening day of the Arabian Travel Market exhibition, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

For Riyadh and other potential new Abraham Accords partners, the key consideration is not the Palestinian conflict but rather the rapaciousness of Tehran’s ayatollahs, and when they weigh deepened ties with Israel, they are assessing how best to defang the Iranian threat.

During his stay in Israel, Biden highlighted his love and appreciation for our country, its achievements and its people. “Seeing Israel thrive, seeing the wildest dreams of Israel’s founding fathers and mothers grow into a reality that Israel’s children enjoy today, to me is close to miraculous,” he proclaimed at the President’s Residence, in one of the most heartfelt of several warm speeches.

US President Joe Biden speaks with Holocaust survivors Giselle Cycowicz (bottom-R) and Rena Quint (bottom-L), at the Hall of Remembrance of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem, on July 13, 2022. (Menahem KAHANA / various sources / AFP)

His unscripted readiness to go down on one knee to interact at length with two Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem emblemized the deep solidarity and empathy at the heart of his trip.

And the text of the Jerusalem Declaration that he solemnly signed with Lapid provided the formal context for that solidarity — a “strategic” commitment “to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter its enemies and to defend itself by itself against any threat.” The declaration singled out the unique threat posed by Iran, and featured a US pledge “never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon” and to use “all elements” of American national power “to ensure that outcome.”

But as both Lapid and, in their brief meeting, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought vehemently to stress to the US president, diplomacy is not going to halt the Iranian nuclear program.

Said Lapid at their joint press conference last Thursday: “Words will not stop them, Mr. President. Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force. The only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table.”

Reported Netanyahu after his brief one-on-one with Biden a few hours later: “There must be a credible offensive military option… I told him that with no credible military option, Iran won’t be stopped. [And] If Iran isn’t deterred, that military option has to be used.”

But the leader of the free world was adamant. When it comes to “ensuring Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon,” he said, “I continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve this outcome.”

In this photo released by Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets US President Joe Biden, with a fist bump after his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

As has been the case through much of Iran’s steady march to nuclear weapons capability, America’s disinclination to radiate a readiness and a capability to use force to stop the Iranian bomb has emboldened Tehran, which now openly brags that it has the “technical capabilities” to make one.

Ironically, of course, America’s reluctance to muster a credible threat, and the consequent Iranian confidence, increase the likelihood that using force will actually be necessary. We gradually draw nearer to a stark choice: Iran with a nuclear arsenal or military intervention.

Pushed in an Israeli TV interview on the eve of his visit, Biden said he would use force “as a last resort” to stop Iran’s nuclear program. As the US president would well know, that response would be shrugged off in Tehran; it was hardly calculated to impel the regime to stop its uranium enrichment, halt its missile development and abandon its nuclear weaponization efforts.

IDF chief Aviv Kohavi speaks at a ceremony marking the change of the Home Front Command’s chief, July 17, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

In the absence of a more credibly threatening US stance, and a more credible US capacity to act, time runs ever shorter.

Israel, the prime immediate focus of the ayatollahs’ malevolent ambition, is increasingly concluding that it must play a central role in deterring and, if necessary, acting against Iran. And thus, hours after Biden returned to the White House from his Middle East visit, Israel’s chief of staff Aviv Kohavi declared it was Israel’s “moral obligation” to prepare a military response against Iran’s nuclear program, and said advancing that military option was at “the center” of the IDF’s preparations.

For the Saudis, meanwhile, this is a period to calculate and recalculate their interests, and to calibrate their overt alliances, as we have all been seeing in the last few days. It is also, presumably, a period to deepen their covert alliances.

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