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The future of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

In 2020, I was on an historic flight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PILOT: Captain speaking. I would like to inform you that we have just crossed the border to Saudi Arabia for the first time in the history of Israel airliners.

ESTRIN: It was the first time an Israeli airliner made a public flight from Israel to the United Arab Emirates. At the time, this was a huge deal. Israel was on the path to a diplomatic treaty with a major Arab country. Emiratis had agreed to normalize relations with Israel. But to get from Israel to the United Arab Emirates, you have to cross Saudi Arabia, and so the Saudis opened their airspace to the Israelis. Now, this might seem like a small thing, but that flight was a step toward an even bigger diplomatic goal - formal relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, arguably the most influential Arab country. It was the kind of symbolic gesture that Israel has been seeking for decades. A breakthrough, like diplomatic relations, is still many months away or more if it happens. But there has been steady momentum in that direction that's being touted by those who want it to happen, especially Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BEJAMIN NETANYAHU: I think that we are about to witness a pivot of history, maybe.

ESTRIN: Felicia Schwartz is a correspondent for the Financial Times, and she's been doing a deep dive into the intensive shuttle diplomacy of the last few months with senior U.S. officials going to Saudi Arabia.

FELICIA SCHWARTZ: There is this growing closeness between Israel and its Gulf Arab neighbors - some of it out in the open, some of it not, like Israel and Saudi. And I think policymakers want to take advantage of that and use that as a new kind of lever.

ESTRIN: The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are negotiating a three-way deal involving the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia.

SCHWARTZ: That would be kind of the crown jewel of Israel's ambition to be regarded as a kind of equal significant power in the region but also helping the Americans to create a Middle East that subscribes to its worldview, where all of its close partners can cooperate with each other in the open.

ESTRIN: President Biden says a deal may be underway. He would get to preside over an historic agreement before he runs for reelection. But Saudi and Israeli leaders have had chilly relations with Biden. They have supported Donald Trump before, and they might want to wait for a better deal if he becomes president again.

SCHWARTZ: I think that these talks have gotten more serious as the parties and the players in all of the capitals understand that the window of time for this process to happen is closing.

ESTRIN: But it seems like an almost impossible three-way agreement. I asked Felicia Schwartz about some of the hurdles.

SCHWARTZ: The Saudis want civil nuclear cooperation with the U.S. and some sort of defense pact guarantee assurance. The Israelis want formal relations with Saudi Arabia. They want to open embassies, all of the kind of formal, public handshakes, travel everything. The U.S. wants Israel to be formally recognized by Saudi Arabia, and they want the Saudis to help them convince Israel to make concessions for the Palestinians to, at the very least, meaningfully improve Palestinians' quality of life and perhaps somehow flick at their aspirations for statehood.

ESTRIN: What is the timeline here? How likely is this deal?

SCHWARTZ: I think if it's going to happen under President Biden, it's the next 6 to 9, maybe 6 to 12 months. The senior officials I've spoken with put the likelihood at less than 50%. There's a lot of work to be done. It probably won't happen, but I think the fact that we're even talking about that it could is extraordinary.

ESTRIN: So what's standing in the way? Well, for one thing, Saudi Arabia wants a civilian nuclear program, it says, for peaceful purposes like generating electricity. But Schwartz says if the Saudis are able to enrich and reprocess uranium on Saudi soil, they could use it to eventually create a nuclear bomb to counter perceived threats from Iran's nuclear program. And then there's the fact that in recent years, the Saudi leadership has grown unpopular in the U.S. for a variety of reasons.

SCHWARTZ: One being the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist, the war in Yemen - which, particularly in Congress, Saudi got a lot of heat for - indiscriminately killing civilians, heavy-handed tactics. And then also, you know, the Saudis have been taking steps to cut oil production as gas prices for Americans are high. So there is a feeling for many people that Saudi Arabia, for a lot of reasons, isn't a great partner.

ESTRIN: The crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia is Mohammed bin Salman - MBS. He's known for cracking down on dissidents. The U.S. intelligence community released a report assessing that he personally approved the operation to capture or kill Jamal Khashoggi.

SCHWARTZ: I think the Americans feel like, OK, they put out this report. They showed that MBS is guilty. I think privately, they've certainly raised it with him. And that's...

ESTRIN: I mean, he had a nickname going around Washington - Mr. Bone Saw - MBS.

SCHWARTZ: Yeah. Yes. Yes.

ESTRIN: It's just remarkable to see where we've come since then.

SCHWARTZ: I think it's incredibly remarkable. But maybe, in a way, if you've been around Washington as long as I have and others way longer, I think it's just not that surprising at the end of the day. Biden said that human rights was going to be at the center of his foreign policy. I think it's very clear that, you know, he's definitely paid lip service to that. But there are a lot of just fundamental American priorities that sometimes mean getting into bed with unsavory characters, and MBS is one of them.

ESTRIN: What about the fact that the - you know, the Saudi leadership and the Israeli leadership, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had been so close to former President Trump? Why don't they just wait for a potential Trump presidency? Why would they want to strike a deal with Biden?

SCHWARTZ: That is the million-dollar question that sort of gets at this, why is it this 6-to-9-month time frame? I think it will have more legitimacy if it happens under a Democratic president because I think pro-Israel sentiment in the Democratic Party is slipping. And Democrats - based off all the bad blood for a whole host of reasons, with them and the Republicans and Trump in particular and the pro-Israel policy moves that he took - are not going to want to give him a pro-Israel victory that requires the support of Congress. So there is a kind of confluence of political forces in the U.S. that can find each other now, and it's not really clear that they could find each other in the same way post-2024.

ESTRIN: And a deal could be a big win for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

SCHWARTZ: It would cement his place in history. I think he is - no one is more concerned about their legacy than Benjamin Netanyahu. And this would be the thing. This would be - this is the dream of Israel since it was created as a state. So, I mean, it might wash away some of his, you know, more controversial corruption cases and everything that he's facing. But he's got to get there.

ESTRIN: And for the Palestinians?

SCHWARTZ: Unfortunately, while what to do about the Palestinians looms large over these conversations, they're really not a part of them. And so what's in it for the Palestinians? Maybe nothing, unfortunately.

ESTRIN: I spoke about this with Bader Al-Saif. He's an assistant professor of history at Kuwait University. I asked him what the significance of the deal would be for the region.

BADER AL-SAIF: It will only be significant if Palestine is front and center in this deal. No amount of normalization with any Arab state, for that matter, can manage to shake this issue without Palestine being front and center. I know that the Saudis have this in their mind, regardless of the many narratives that we hear out there. And it's unfortunate that a lot of the narratives that we hear are either U.S.-centric or Israel-centric. And the Saudi view or the Arab view, by extension, gets lost in the process. And I think it's time for this to be balanced off. There will not be any movement forward without a resolution to the Palestinian issue. And by a resolution, I mean a permanent, sustainable one that brings dignity and justice to the Palestinian people.

ESTRIN: If a deal goes through that provides a meaningful solution to Palestinians' quest for independence and the things that they want, what significance would this have? I mean, what is your kind of headline of what possibilities this holds?

AL-SAIF: If Palestine gets an independent state with all the semblances of sovereignty, then this would be a huge deal because it would upend the whole security architecture in the Middle East. It would usher in a real peace for the first time since the end of the World War II era, in which we've seen the creation of various states in the region, including Israel, but with a lot of lingering files and chapters, most prominently being the Palestinian one.

ESTRIN: I pointed out that a Palestinian state seems very far off. And if that is the condition for a deal, it would make a deal very unlikely. He thinks this deal may come in stages. Without a Palestinian state, the Saudis may just begin with a smaller step toward Israel.

AL-SAIF: But let me tell you something. They've been playing with words in terms of, oh, is it a big-bank deal, or are we going to go through phases? Then it keeps the door open to striking that big bank towards the end.

ESTRIN: That was Bader Al-Saif. He teaches history at Kuwait University. NPR's Aya Batrawy covers Saudi Arabia. I asked her about the likelihood of a deal and when we might see one.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: This is a Saudi leadership that is hyperfocused on its own national security interest. This is a crown prince who is focused on what is best for Saudi Arabia. And if they're not going to be able to get the kind of concessions they need from this Israeli government for the Palestinians, what they're going to demand and what they're going to require are major security concessions from the Biden administration and from members of Congress across the aisle to guarantee that this deal is worth it for the kingdom. And so the question really is, what is the kingdom? What is Saudi Arabia going to get out of Washington in order to make it worth it for this crown prince to stand and shake hands - or any member of his government - with this hard-line right-wing Israeli government at this particular time in history?

ESTRIN: NPR's Aya Batrawy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.