In his recent address at the United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel is “on the cusp” of a historic deal with Saudi Arabia.
Earlier in the week, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told Fox News that “every day we get closer” to Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with Israel. And President Joe Biden and his foreign policy team continue to pursue a normalization deal as a major diplomatic achievement as Biden heads into an election year.
The stakes are high. For Israel, a deal would, among other things, open the door to more business with the Middle East’s largest economy and help counter Iranian aggression. It could also encourage other Muslim-majority states to have friendlier ties with Israel. And for Saudi Arabia, a deal could be the key to achieving several diplomatic, political and security-related objectives that would further solidify the kingdom’s prominence and secure its future.
The Saudis want to improve relations with the United States following disputes over political overtures and oil sales to China, the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Biden’s declaration of the kingdom’s “pariah” status several years ago. Saudi Arabia’s purported “price” for agreeing to a normalization deal with Israel includes arrangements to buy advanced weaponry from the U.S., entering into a defense pact with the U.S. to defend it against an attack from Iran and developing a civilian nuclear program on Saudi soil. A deal would also require some meaningful steps toward the resolution of the long-festering problems between Israel and the Palestinians.
While all this is happening, Saudi Arabia is moving forward with efforts to host the 2030 World Expo — the contemporary version of the World’s Fair. The international vote to select the host city is set for November, and Israel’s vote appears to be in play. A delegation from Italy pitched Israel’s Foreign Ministry to vote for Rome to host the Expo and South Korea has reportedly sought possible Israeli support of Busan as the host city. But as talks regarding Israel-Saudi normalization heat up, pressure is mounting on Israel to support Riyadh for the host designation, which would certainly be seen as a goodwill gesture.
Over the past several weeks, there has also been a historic flow of official Israeli visits to the kingdom. Two weeks ago, two high-ranking Israeli Foreign Ministry officials attended a UNESCO conference in Riyadh — the first Israeli diplomats to make a public visit to Saudi Arabia. Last week, Israel’s Tourism Minister Haim Katz traveled to Saudi Arabia for a United Nations conference, becoming the first Israeli minister to lead a delegation to the kingdom. This week, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi arrived in Riyadh to attend the Universal Postal Union Conference. And Knesset Economic Affairs Committee chairman David Bitan is also set to visit Saudi Arabia this week.
There is still much work to be done and significant negotiations to be completed. But many of the confidence-building gestures toward an Israel-Saudi normalization deal seem to be falling into place. And that’s a good thing.