Experts Weigh in on Advantages and Risks of Saudi Deal
Despite the numerous direct and indirect security advantages of a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, there are also several potential risks.
The Israeli Defence Forces launched a study this week to analyze the security implications of a normalization deal between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The study is being administered by a number of IDF branches, including intelligence, strategic planning, the Iran department and the air force. It seeks to clearly outline the advantages of the deal, including possible opportunities for partnership, along with the security risks of potential concessions that may be required of Israel to secure such an agreement. The findings will be presented to IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant before being examined by the Cabinet. There is currently no confirmed timeframe for the study.
The long-touted normalization deal has received the full backing of the United States and is a central campaign promise of the current Israeli government under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Saudi deal is seen as the logical continuation of the Abraham Accords, which tripled the number of Israeli-Arab peace deals in the span of four months in 2020. Netanyahu has on many occasions praised the advantages of such a deal, and has stated that it would lead to a “quantum leap” in regional stability and peace. However, experts say that there are multiple nuances to such a deal which may present both great security advantages as well as potential dangers.
According to experts, a central security advantage of Saudi-Israel normalization would be the potential cooperation between the two countries on a litany of defense issues.
“A deal between us will allow us to cooperate on intelligence, share techniques and strategies and work together in any way that helps defend both countries,” former Israeli National Security Adviser Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror told JNS. “Both countries already exist under the umbrella of U.S. Central Command, and share many common threats; there is a natural place for partnership and cooperation,” said Amidror, who is currently a fellow at The Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).
Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official, author and Middle East analyst and educator, further expanded on this point, telling JNS that some of the central threats that can be partnered on include Iran and “the complex operations in southern Syria which smuggle drugs and weapons into Jordan that then flow into the Gulf state, as well as sometimes Israel and Egypt.”
According to Melamed, the current political reality has made “Israel’s physical borders secondary when Israel looks at its big interests. When Israel looks at the overall big picture, Yemen and the Indian Ocean emerge as the southern geostrategic border.”
In this context, Saudi Arabia’s outsized influence in places like the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab Strait makes it “enormously important in stabilizing and strengthening Israel’s southern geostrategic border,” he said.
Melamed further explained that “all along Israel’s borders, including Jordan, Egypt and the Red Sea, there are domestic players that are attuned to the Saudis’ interests, and incorporating these players into a mutual partnership of give and take could greatly benefit Israel’s security.”
Beyond the direct defense implications of a normalization agreement, such a deal is also expected to cause major changes in Israel’s international standing and have a positive effect on its economy. Both of these factors can indirectly impact Israel’s broader security paradigm, said Amidror.
“Having an agreement with Saudi Arabia will automatically enhance Israel’s international standing, possibly open the door for future agreements with other Muslim states and remove Israel from its isolated status facing a hostile and threatening Muslim world,” said Amidror. “The essence of Israel’s position will be totally different,” he added.
From the economic side, “The combination of the technological giant, Israel, and the economic giant, Saudi Arabia, has huge potential for increasing the stability and richness of the Middle East,” said Amidror.
Despite the numerous potential security advantages of a normalization deal, there are also several risk factors. One of Saudi Arabia’s central negotiation demands has been the establishment of a nuclear program, including a uranium enrichment operation. This request has raised concern in Jerusalem, with the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office stating that “Israel never agreed to a nuclear program for any of its neighboring countries, this was and remains Israel’s policy.” Israeli political leaders have on multiple occasions said that they are uncomfortable with the idea of a Saudi nuclear program, which they believe will open the door to other Middle Eastern countries making similar requests.
Despite these concerns, many believe there is room to negotiate with Riyadh, and that a consensus can be reached that doesn’t threaten Israel’s security.
“The nuclear question does not need to be a problem. I think [the United States] can deliver many concessions, including mining uranium, milling uranium, exporting uranium and setting up fuel banks in Saudi Arabia, as long as [Saudi Arabia] is willing to move on the enrichment question,” Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS.
Amidror emphasized the necessity of proper oversight to ensure that red lines are not crossed, however he agreed that a deal was possible.
“We need strict oversight to make sure that the Saudis do not develop nuclear military capabilities, without that the risk is not worth it. If Israeli security experts are comfortable with the oversight guarantees so that the deal will not be violated, then we can move forward,” said Amidror.
Regarding the general threat of nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, Melamed presented a pessimistic picture.
“It’s not about prevention anymore—if Turkey or Egypt decide tomorrow that they want a nuclear program for civilian purposes, who’s going to stop them?” said Melamed. “Today it has to be looked at from a different perspective. We have to separate the players we can play ball with and negotiate with, like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, and the problematic players like the mullah regime [of Iran] who are a real threat,” he added.
A further security concern surrounding normalization efforts with Riyadh is the dilution of Israel’s “qualitative military edge” compared to its Middle Eastern neighbors. As part of the Abraham Accords Israel conceded the sale by the United States of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates. Similar concessions to Saudi Arabia are expected as part of a future normalization deal.
However, experts say that there are ways of getting around these concerns.
“We have a lot of experience with the United States in solving similar problems. It has been decades since the United States made its commitment to keep Israel’s qualitative edge, and all that is needed are some discussions between Israel and the United States about how we adjust our partnership to allow for Saudi demands,” said Amidror. “This is a question of technical detail,” he added.
Melamed went even further, saying that “today, the military reality is completely different, and the significance and meaning of Israel’s qualitative edge is completely different. Israel will need to be compensated for major changes in Saudi Arabia’s military technology, but the calculation of what exactly keeps Israel’s qualitative edge is not as simple as [it was] 40 years ago, when any major weapon sales to Saudi Arabia fundamentally threatened Israel’s security.”
The final factor in the U.S.-Israel-Saudi negotiations that may have a destabilizing effect on Israel’s security is potential concessions to the Palestinians. Although no official concessions have yet been articulated, multiple sources confirm that certain concessions are almost guaranteed to be part of the framework of a deal.
In a recent interview with Fox News, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman notably did not mention a two-state solution as a prerequisite for normalization, however, at a minimum the deal is expected to include a large influx of money to the Palestinian Authority. The security implications of a normalization deal from the Palestinian perspective remain unclear.
“Nobody knows how the Palestinians will react. It might ignite the Palestinian territories … or it may lead to no reaction. There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of factions in a very volatile situation. It is impossible to tell,” said Melamed.
Originally Published in Jewish News Syndicate.