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Saudi - Israel Relations

by Mitchell Bard

Saudi Arabia and the Palestine Issue
The Fight Over Partition|
Suez and the Red Sea
The Six-Day War
The1973 War and Oil Embargo
Battle Over the Boycott
Saudis Refuse to Support Carter Peace Efforts
Fahd’s Phony Peace PlanThe Saudis and Madrid
A Surprise From Bush
Saudis Fund Terrorists
Dinner With Tom Friedman
Obama Bows to Saudis
Trump Strengthens Ties
The Verge of Normalization?

War in Gaza

Saudi Arabia and the Palestine Issue

Israel and Saudi Arabia have no formal diplomatic ties. The reasons include Saudi anti-Semitism, Saudi-American relations, and the Palestinian issue.

In 1937, Saudi Arabia’s King Ibn Saud told British Colonel H.R.P. Dickson: “Our hatred for the Jews dates from God’s condemnation of them for their persecution and rejection of Isa (Jesus) and their subsequent rejection of His chosen Prophet.” He added, “that for a Muslim to kill a Jew, or for him to be killed by a Jew ensures him an immediate entry into Heaven and into the august presence of God Almighty.”

At one point in the mid-1940s, as the Palestine issue heated up, Saud threatened to execute any Jew who tried to enter the kingdom.[1]

The king’s anti-Semitism was one reason for the king’s virulent opposition to the Zionist enterprise. Considering himself the leader of the Arabs and Muslims, King Saud also felt compelled to speak out against what he saw as Jewish aggression in Palestine.

In May 1943, King Saud first made his views clear on the future of Palestine after viewing with alarm the Roosevelt administration’s drift toward support for the establishment of a Jewish state. “Jews have no right to Palestine,” he wrote the president. “God forbid . . . the Allies should, at the end of their struggle, crown their victory by evicting the Arabs from their home.”[2]

The Saudis had not yet achieved fabulous wealth; in fact, they constantly needed American cash, and their oil reserves were not yet viewed as vital to American security, but U.S. government officials feared losing access to the oil fields and the prospect of another government, notably the British, gaining influence in the kingdom. The State Department subsequently backed the king’s warnings by suggesting that support for the Zionists would undermine America’s economic, commercial, cultural, and philanthropic interests throughout the Arab world.

Some diplomats hoped that Saud’s support for partition could be bought. In 1942, the British tried to arrange a deal where they would make him the leader of the Arab/Muslim world (something the State Department would later try as well) if he would work out a deal with Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, who would also arrange for Jewish funds to help him pay off his debts, which at that time were primarily owed to the British. Wallace Murray, an anti-Semite who headed the Near East Division at State, was convinced the only way Saud would accept such a deal would be if a single binational state was created that would effectively deny Jews the homeland promised by the Balfour Declaration, so he hoped to set up a situation whereby the U.S. would get credit in the Arab world if Weizmann compromised and sold out the Zionist program and could blame the British if anything went wrong.

Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles believed the idea had a chance of success based on the precedent of meetings held between Weizmann and the Arab leader Emir Faisal after World War I. Roosevelt subsequently agreed to send Harold Hoskins as an emissary to ask ibn Saud whether he would be willing to meet with Weizmann or other representatives of the Jewish Agency to discuss a solution to the dispute.

The king’s reaction was hostile. He told Hoskins that he was “prepared to talk to anyone, of any religion, except a Jew” and that he specifically disliked Weizmann because Saud claimed the Zionist leader had tried to bribe him.

Roosevelt decided to meet with Saud and discuss the issues face-to-face. Following his meeting with Stalin and Churchill at Yalta in February 1945, Roosevelt traveled to the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal and met Saud, who was making his first trip outside his kingdom, aboard the U.S. cruiser Quincy. Roosevelt made plain his support for the Jewish survivors of what was not yet called the Holocaust. He also expressed his admiration for the Jews who fought against the Nazis and who had developed Palestine and asked the king to support his idea of establishing in Palestine a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth. Saud would have none of it, arguing deceitfully that it was the Arabs and not the Jews who had fought against the Germans and that it was the British and not the Jews who made the deserts bloom. The king was adamantly against allowing Jews to go to Palestine or establish their own state and suggested that they be given the homes of Germans instead. When Roosevelt said that three million Jews had been slaughtered in Poland alone, Saud replied that there must now be room there for three million more.

Roosevelt was shocked by the vehemence of the king’s reaction. He should not have been, given Saud’s previous uncompromising statements, including his remark on the eve of the Yalta Conference that Palestine would be drenched in blood and that the United States must choose between the Zionists and the Arabs.

Roosevelt argued that Palestine was such a small part of the Middle East that the creation of a Jewish state would not harm the Arabs, and he was prepared to guarantee that “the Jews would not move into adjacent parts of the Near East from Palestine.” But he seemed to backtrack by the end of his meeting, promising the king that the United States would not take any position on Palestine without first consulting him and other Arab leaders and would not do anything for the Jews at their expense. This was the promise he had made in May 1943 that “no decision altering the basic situation of Palestine should be reached without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews.”

Afterward, Saud wrote a letter to Roosevelt in which he insisted that Palestine “has been an Arab country since the dawn of history and . . . was never inhabited by Jews for more than a period of time, during which their history in the land was full of murder and cruelty. . . . [There is] religious hostility . . . between the Muslims and the Jews from the beginning of Islam . . . which arose from the treacherous conduct of the Jews towards Islam and the Muslims and their prophet.” In response, Roosevelt wrote that his policy was unchanged and that he would not take any action that might prove hostile to the Arab people.

Roosevelt told a joint session of Congress on March 1, 1945, “I learned more about the whole problem, the Moslem problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in an exchange of two or three dozen letters.” The Zionists were horrified and feared he had reneged on his pledge of support for a Jewish state.

Privately, Roosevelt expressed conflicting opinions. He had told Hoskins that, given the size of the Arab population, a Jewish state “could be installed and maintained only by force.” Before his meeting with Saud, however, he told Undersecretary of State Edward Stettinius, “Palestine should be for the Jews, and no Arabs should be in it.” After his speech to Congress, Roosevelt wrote to reassure the American Jewish leader Stephen Wise that he supported unrestricted immigration to Palestine and a future Jewish state. Roosevelt told Wise he had arranged the meeting with Saud to make the Zionist case but admitted, “I have never so completely failed to make an impact upon a man’s mind as in his case.” Meanwhile, the Arabists continued to reassure their friends in the Middle East that the United States would not act without consulting them, as Roosevelt had promised Saud. When the Arabs tried to suggest they had received a different commitment from Roosevelt, Wise released the letter from the president.

The president died before any decisions had to be made on the future of Palestine.

The Fight Over Partition

Though Saud often made a show of his disdain for Jews and Zionists and his dissatisfaction with U.S. policy, he was far more concerned with other matters. As early as 1945, the tone was set for the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which would contradict the dire warnings of the Arabists for the next seventy years that America’s support for Zionism and later Israel threatened ties with the Saudis. King Saud told Parker Hart that his disagreement with U.S. policy toward Palestine would have “no influence on his friendship with President Truman.”[3]

When Saud sent his son, Crown Prince Saud (who succeeded his father in 1953), to Washington two years later to oppose Zionism and communism and to “liberate U.S. policy from the influence of local Jewish elements and Zionist propaganda,” Saud’s principal concern, besides a request for a $50 million loan for development, was to get reassurance that the U.S. would protect Saudi Arabia from not the Zionists but the Hashemites. This was the family that Saud had defeated and driven from Arabia, but which had won British favor because of their help in defeating the Turks in World War I. The British had rewarded the Hashemites by installing one family member as king of Iraq and creating Transjordan (later Jordan) for another family member to rule. King Saud feared that his old rivals might one day try to return to Arabia. This would remain a Saudi obsession until the Hashemite king in Iraq was deposed in a coup in 1958.

As the United Nations considered how to resolve the dispute between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, the Arab states made it clear that they would oppose partition by force. While King Saud was not willing to jeopardize his ties with the United States over the Palestine issue, he made no mistake about where he stood: “The dispute between the Arab and Jew will be violent and long-lasting and without doubt will lead to more shedding of blood. Even if it is supposed that the Jews will succeed in gaining support for the establishment of a small state by their oppressive and tyrannous means and their money, such a state must perish in a short time. The Arab will isolate such a state from the world and will lay siege to it until it dies by famine. Trade and possible prosperity of the state will be prevented; its end will be the same as that of those crusader states which were forced to relinquish coveted objects in Palestine.”[4]

King Saud called the U.S. decision to support partition “distasteful for the Arab world,” but said in December 1947 that the issue was in the past and thought the Arabs would “take such measures as they deemed necessary for the defense of their interests . . . still we have our own mutual interests and friendship to safeguard.” He expected to be pressured to support the general Arab position on Palestine, he said, but would not be “drawn into conflict with friendly western powers over this question.”[5]

After Israel declared independence, the Saudis made a token contribution to the war that began with an invasion by Arab armies from LebanonSyriaIraq, and Egypt. They sent a small contingent that fought under Egyptian command. They also intimated they might be forced to impose sanctions on U.S. oil companies because of pressure from the Arab public, which objected to American support for Israel. The United States took the threat seriously, even though a State Department study had found that only 6 percent of the world’s oil supplies at that time came from the Middle East and that a cut in consumption “could be achieved without substantial hardship to any group of consumers.”[6]

The British minister to Saudi Arabia explained that the Saudis realized Israel was a reality and had “resigned themselves to its existence in practice while maintaining their formal hostility to Zionism.” Ibn Saud rationalized his refusal to act against the United States by claiming that oil royalties strengthened his country and thereby allowed it “better to assist her neighboring Arab states in resisting Jewish pretensions.”[7]

Throughout the history of Saudi-American relations, U.S. officials have frequently argued the Saudis would punish the United States for its ties with Israel even when the Saudis made no such threat and repeatedly demonstrated they were unwilling to risk American support over the Palestine issue. An early example was in 1951 when Israel sought $150 million in aid, and General Hoyt Vandenberg, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, said the proposal would jeopardize relations with the Saudis and the use of the Dhahran air base. Relations with the Saudis were at an all-time low, he said, and would “go completely out of sight” if Israel got the aid. NEA director George McGhee agreed that aid to Israel would be “disastrous to our relations with the Arab states,” but insisted that relations with the Saudis were excellent.[8] With the possible exception of the 1973 oil embargo, which was instigated for reasons beyond anger over American support for Israel, the Saudis have never punished the United States for providing aid to Israel.

Also, in 1951, King Saud asked U.S. diplomats to finance a pro-Arab lobby to counter the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs (later the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—AIPAC). Rather than emerging from the Arab-American community, the lobby was a creation of the Arabists. U.S. diplomat Cornelius Van Engert corresponded with Allen Dulles, then CIA director of plans, who helped arrange a secret subvention through the Dearborn Foundation in Chicago to establish the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME).

The lobby was to promote Saudi interests, not the Palestinians’, who were seen as “a pro-Soviet radicalizing force,” according to Gulf scholar Joshua Teitelbaum.

Suez and the Red Sea

Following Israel’s victory in the Suez War, President Eisenhower pressured Israel to withdraw from the territory it captured. Even after capitulating to U.S. pressure and returning Sinai to Egyptian control, Israel was asked to make further concessions in the interest of U.S.-Saudi harmony. Israel had insisted on freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, as the blockade by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser had been a casus belli for the war, and the United States supported Israel’s position. The Saudis were upset, however, because the king believed the Gulf of Aqaba was “one of the sacred areas of Islam” and a “closed Arab Gulf” that belonged to the Muslims. He rejected the idea that these were international waters, suggesting otherwise would be a “derogation of Saudi sovereignty and a threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity.” He was prepared to defend the area against the Jews, who he believed threatened the “approaches to the Holy Places.”[9]

The issue was a red herring since only a tiny fraction of Muslim pilgrims came to Saudi Arabia via the Gulf, Israel did not interfere with their journey, and Saudi charges about Israel bombarding Saudi territory were fabricated. Nevertheless, the State Department pressured Israel to tie up its warships in Eilat, and NEA chief William Rountree wanted them removed from the Gulf altogether. Israel was prepared to assure the Saudis they would not interfere in the pilgrimage but felt it had already done enough by sacrificing the legal right of its ships to transit the waterway. When the Israelis asked if complying with the American request would influence Saudi King Faisal’s attitude, Rountree answered that he didn’t believe it would alter the Saudi position at all. Nevertheless, he insisted that Israel’s compliance would contribute to area stability.[10]

The openly anti-Semitic U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, George Wadsworth, lauded Saud’s subsequent letter to Eisenhower proposing a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Eisenhower told Secretary of State John Foster Dulles the king had a “simple” and “unrealistic solution”— “the destruction of Israel.”[11]

Faisal’s “solution” should not have come as a surprise given that he was a virulent anti-Semite like his father, who once told a congressman from San Francisco how much he liked the city, especially the signs in stores that said, “No dogs or Jews allowed.” On a visit to Paris, he claimed that five children were murdered, and their blood drained by Jews so they could use it to make Passover matzo. Faisal was also known for giving visitors copies of the anti-Semitic forgery Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

During a visit to Washington on June 22, 1966, Faisal made anti-Zionist remarks that prompted the mayor and governor of New York to cancel scheduled meetings. This was precisely the type of embarrassment the State Department had hoped to avoid. A public relations firm had worked for weeks before the visit to burnish the image of Saudi Arabia and its king.

A few months later, Faisal declared that “either Zionism and Israel [must] renounce their project of creating a state in the bosom of the Arab nation, or the Arabs must have the necessary will and power to retake their fatherland by force.”[12] This threat became more serious soon afterward when tensions escalated, and Israel launched a preemptive strike on Egypt and Syria on June 5, 1967.

Two weeks before Israel’s preemptive strike, Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani warned the United States to stay out of the crisis; if the States directly supported Israel, Aramco would be nationalized, “‘if not today, then tomorrow.’”[13]

Meanwhile, in the 1960s, the Mossad aided the pro-Saudi side in the war in Yemen. 

The Six-Day War

In 1956, Egypt was fighting alone, but in 1967, the entire Arab world was involved in the fight against Israel. Saudi Arabia sent a brigade of three thousand soldiers to southern Jordan in a symbolic show of solidarity, but the troops did not fight.

When the war began, the Saudis were furious with the Americans and, believing they had an obligation to use the one weapon at their command, joined the other Arab oil producers in imposing an embargo. At the time, approximately 80 percent of the kingdom’s income came from oil, and rival oil producers were more than happy to fill the void created when the Saudis withdrew from the market, so they could not afford to stop selling their only real product. To save face and their economy, the Saudis declared in early July 1967 that it was in the Arabs’ interest to sell more oil to build up their economic strength, and there was no reason to continue the embargo since they had learned that the United States and British had not helped Israel during the war. The embargo lasted less than two weeks, with Saudi Arabia calling it quits on September 2; the other oil producers followed soon afterward.

The embargo did not win the Saudis any credit in the Arab world. After their humiliating defeat within six days, all the Arab leaders were under fire, but the Saudis were especially targeted for essentially sitting on the sidelines. They were also viewed as complicit in Israel’s “aggression” because of their close ties with the United States. Faisal, with his delusional notions of a Communist-Zionist conspiracy, believed the Soviets had deliberately misled Nasser because they were really on the side of the Zionists. 

Israel proved its might and significantly reduced the threat posed by its neighbors. Saudi Arabia also benefitted from the Israeli victory because Egypt was forced to withdraw its troops from Yemen, where they posed a threat, and effectively ended Nasser’s dominant role in Arab affairs. The destruction of the Egyptian army also forced Nasser to become dependent on the Saudis and the conservative monarchs in Libya and Kuwait.

The Saudis’ principal concerns after the war were to provide funding to help Egypt, Jordan, and Syria rebuild their armies and to pressure the United States to do something to force Israel out of the territories it captured. Faisal became frustrated with the U.S. refusal to blame Israel for the war and its interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 242 as not requiring a complete Israeli withdrawal to the prewar boundaries. Ultimately, however, the Saudis cared more about their own parochial interest, namely, the survival of the Saud dynasty, which depended on American support, than about Israel or the Palestinians.

The Saudis did not abandon the Palestinians, however, and became financial supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).[14] The organization engaged in terrorist attacks, destabilized the region, threatened two American allies—Jordan and Israel—and later murdered American citizens.

The1973 War and Oil Embargo

According to former CIA operative Raymond Close, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat sent a letter to King Faisal on April 17, 1973, informing him of his intention to attack Israel; “Sadat acknowledged unashamedly in this letter that he did not expect to win a war against Israel, but he explained that only by restoring Arab honor and displaying Arab courage on the battlefield could he hope to capture the attention of Washington and persuade Henry Kissinger to support a peace process.” When Faisal sent his son to warn President Richard Nixon about the need to more vigorously pursue peace (on the Arabs’ terms, of course) or face the inevitability of war and a likely oil embargo, Close said, “Washington had again failed through arrogance and ignorance to appreciate the significance of the term ‘linkage.’”[15]

In early May 1973, King Faisal told oil company executives that Zionists and Communists were “on the verge of having American interests thrown out of the area.” Faisal expected the companies to try to change U.S. policy and suggested that “a simple disavowal of Israeli policies and actions” would help overcome anti-American feelings.[16]

The Saudis had always expected the oil companies to support their position but had never demanded this as a condition of remaining in the country. This was the most assertive they had ever been in demanding allegiance to their anti-Israel policy. The change was partially due to their growing control over Aramco and the lessening of their dependence on Americans to develop and market their resource. They also had learned from years of successful extortion that they could get what they wanted through threats.

On May 23, 1973, oil executives from Aramco, Standard Oil of California, Texaco, Exxon, and Mobil met in Geneva with the Saudi oil minister, Ahmed Zaki Yamani, to discuss the transfer of the ownership of Aramco to Saudi Arabia. A year earlier, the Aramco partners had agreed to sell 20 percent of its stake to the Saudi government, and they were going to have to give up more. The Americans were hoping to delay the inevitable as long as possible and were therefore especially vulnerable to threats when King Faisal arrived and warned the Americans that if they did not take measures to inform the public and government officials as to America’s “true interests” in the Middle East, they would lose their oil concession. “You will lose everything,” Faisal said.[17]

The Wall Street Journal warned: “If the United States ever does suggest that it will bend its Middle East policy for the sake of oil, American policy would quickly find itself under intensified pressures and increasingly dangerous threats from all quarters.”[18]

Sadat, meanwhile, went to Riyadh to see Faisal on August 23, 1973, and informed him of his secret plan to go to war. Faisal agreed to provide financial aid and said he was prepared to use the oil weapon but was afraid that if the war ended too quickly, as in 1967, it would again fail to have an impact.

Normally press-shy, King Faisal himself directly addressed the American people in a series of interviews with the media that he believed was controlled by unspecified forces hostile to Saudi Arabia. He said that Saudi Arabia had no wish to restrict oil exports to the United States, but suggested that it was difficult to continue to supply oil to a country supporting Zionism against the Arabs.

On October 11, 1973, Faisal wrote a letter to Nixon asking him to stop supporting Israel in the war. The following day the chairmen of Exxon, Mobil, Texaco, and SoCal sent President Nixon a memo (warning of dire consequences if the United States continued to support the Israelis in the war. The same day, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir also sent an urgent letter to Nixon describing the setbacks the Israeli army had experienced and the dire situation facing the country if the United States did not provide military supplies.[19]

The president’s response to Faisal’s letter isn’t known; he did not respond to the oil executives’ letter. He did react to Meir’s, however, by approving a large-scale resupply of Israeli forces on October 14. The same day, Faisal also sent another letter to Nixon expressing his dismay over the decision to airlift supplies to Israel and asking him to cease the resupply and demand an Israeli withdrawal.[20]

The following day, October 17, OPEC declared an embargo on oil shipments to unfriendly states, including the United States.

The timing of the embargo and the declared rationale tied the action to U.S. support for Israel, but this was only the catalyst for the Saudis to act in their own self-interest and the culmination of an evolutionary process toward taking control of their own resources.

The Saudi goal was to isolate the Jews from their supporters, and the Saudis used threats to attract collaborators. The Europeans were quick to appease the Arabs, criticizing U.S. support for Israel and adopting more pro-Arab views. Their excuse was that they were more dependent on Arab oil than the United States.

Ironically, Prince (later king) Fahd bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud used the American resupply of Israel as an example of why the Saudis needed to have close relations with the United States. After showing his security officers evidence of the U.S. airlift, Fahd summarized the raison d’être of the relationship: “They are the only ones capable of saving us in this manner should we ever be at risk.”[21]

On October 19, Nixon publicly called for $2.2 billion in emergency military aid for Israel, having warned friendly Arab countries earlier of his intention. The Saudis and other Arab states that had so far only announced a cut in production immediately retaliated by cutting off all shipments of oil to the United States.

Kissinger traveled to Riyadh in November 1973 to try to persuade Faisal to lift the embargo. The king refused and lectured Kissinger on how Israel was helping the Communist advance in the Middle East. He said he would not end the embargo until the United States forced Israel to withdraw to the 1967 boundaries and the Palestinians established a homeland with Jerusalem as its capital. When Kissinger asked what would then become of the Wailing [Western] Wall, Israel’s holiest shrine, Faisal replied that another wall could be built somewhere else where the Jews could wail. Faisal also declared his intention to stop the Jews’ efforts to “run the world” with his “oil weapon.”

In January 1974, the United States thought it had convinced the Saudis to lift the embargo, in part because Kissinger had negotiated a partial Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad intervened, however, and persuaded Faisal to maintain the embargo until a disengagement agreement was reached for the Golan Heights.

In mid-February 1974, Faisal met with Sadat and Assad. Sadat argued that the embargo was becoming a liability; the United States would be reluctant to continue to engage in negotiations under coercion. Assad wanted Faisal to hold out until Syria got what he wanted, but Faisal ultimately agreed to lift the embargo on March 18 after Kissinger reported progress in Israeli-Syrian talks. Notably, the embargo ended without any concessions regarding Palestinian demands.

The Arabs left open the possibility of reimposing the embargo if they were dissatisfied with American actions. That threat receded in the short run after Kissinger brokered the Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreement in early May; nevertheless, Faisal warned of a new embargo in September 1974 if Israel did not withdraw from all the territory it held before the end of the year.

Battle Over the Boycott

The Arab boycott was formally declared by the newly formed Arab League Council, which included Saudi Arabia, on December 2, 1945. One element of the boycott involved putting companies doing business with Israel on a blacklist that was supposed to bar them from commercial activities with Arab countries.

Senator Frank Church made public for the first time a list of fifteen hundred American firms on the 1970 Saudi blacklist, which made the public aware of the scope of the boycott. After several years of debate, the United States adopted anti-boycott legislation in 1977.

The boycott is still technically in force. In 2005, Saudi Arabia was required to cease its boycott of Israel as a condition of joining the World Trade Organization. In June 2006, the Saudi ambassador admitted that his country still enforced the boycott in violation of promises made earlier to the Bush administration. Since then, however, the Saudis do not appear to have devoted much energy to the boycott.

Saudis Refuse to Support Carter Peace Efforts

When Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David Accords in 1978, President Jimmy Carter was concerned about the reaction of the Arab world. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat believed the key to winning an endorsement for the accords, and possibly even broadening the process to include Syria and others, was the backing of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Carter assured him that he could deliver their support.

The Saudis led Carter to believe they would help marshal support for the peace process, but instead, they joined the other Arab states in denouncing the agreements, in part because they objected to Egypt signing a separate peace that left the Syrians and, especially, the Palestinians out in the cold.

Carter made excuses for the Saudis, saying that they would only support the treaty privately and that the Arab criticism would have been worse if not for the Saudis exercising restraint. The truth was that Carter had sent a private letter to King Khalid seeking his support and had been rebuffed. Sadat had warned that there would be problems if the Saudis didn’t support the Camp David Accords, and Hermann Eilts, the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told Carter the Saudis would never accept the agreement. Displaying the messianic conviction that had led him to believe he could persuade the Arabs to make peace by the force of his personality, Carter said, “Hermann, don’t you worry about the Saudis, I’ll take care of them.” Eilts was left thinking that Carter must know something he didn’t. It turned out that Eilts was correct, and Carter subsequently felt the king had betrayed him.[22]

Carter blamed Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for the Saudis’ opposition to Camp David. He said that Begin had promised to freeze settlements for the duration of autonomy talks, which were expected to take months if not years. Begin, however, insisted he had agreed only to a three-month freeze while the peace treaty was negotiated – and the evidence supports his position. Nevertheless, Carter insisted that Begin reneged on his commitment and maintained that this alienated both the Saudis and Jordanians.[23]

The Saudis then and now have mostly paid lip service to the Palestinian cause. Carter knew this but acted as if it were not true. “Really, it would be a very great surprise to me,” Carter told reporters in 1979, “for Crown Prince Fahd to send through our Ambassador, John West, to me a message: ‘If you don’t expedite the resolution of the Palestinian question, we will cut off your oil.’”[24]

Despite the opposition of the Saudis and others, Israel and Egypt signed a peace agreement.

Fahd’s Phony Peace Plan

When Ronald Reagan entered office, he agreed to sell Saudi Arabia AWACS radar planes. The decision came just after Prince Fahd said in an interview that if Israel agreed to total withdrawal from the disputed territories, Saudi Arabia would bring other Arab states and the Palestinians to negotiate peace. The Fahd Plan was a nonstarter for negotiations, but making noises about a peace agreement was a clever lobbying tactic to win support for the arms sales. It allowed the administration to paint the Saudis as moderates.

Eight months later, after winning the AWACS battle, the Saudis hosted an Islamic conference that denounced the Camp David Accords, rejected Resolution 242, and called for a jihad against Israel. When Secretary of State Haig visited Riyadh to press the Saudis to join the strategic consensus he was trying to build against the Soviets, the Saudis went out of their way to say that the only threat to the region was Israel.[25]

A year later, the Saudis were heavily involved in a propaganda campaign in the United States to criticize Israel for its invasion of Lebanon. The Arab Women’s Council hired the PR firm of Robert Keith Gray, a former associate of Ronald Reagan, to organize events highlighting the impact of Israel’s military operations on the people of Lebanon. The council was organized by the wife of the Saudi ambassador, Nouha Alhegelen, together with the wife of the Arab League’s observer to the UN, Hala Maksoud, to stop the “genocide in Lebanon.” To get an idea of Alhegelen’s views, she was asked if the West Bank was the rightful homeland of the Palestinians and responded, “Well, the rightful home for a long time has been the whole of Palestine—what is Israel today, what is the West Bank.”[26]

The Saudis and Madrid

When the Saudis were desperate for U.S. help to defend them from Saddam Hussein, Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud made the rounds on Capitol Hill, promising that his kingdom would lead peace efforts once Saddam was defeated. Following the war, when the Bush administration decided to organize an international peace conference to jump-start negotiations, however, the Saudis insisted they would not participate. Secretary of State Baker angrily told the Saudi foreign minister, “I guess that it was okay to be partners in war, but not in peace.”[27]

Under heavy pressure from the administration and facing furious criticism from members of Congress, the Saudis ultimately agreed to come to the conference in Madrid as “observers” rather than participants. Much of the pressure on the Saudis were really meant to coerce Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to give up his reservations about the conference.

Chief negotiator Dennis Ross said the Saudis promised all sorts of concessions, such as ending the boycott if Israel stopped settlement construction and normalizing relations if an agreement was reached between Israel and Syria. The Saudis kept these assurances private, rendering them of dubious value; in any case, they proved moot, as the Syrians remained uninterested in a peace agreement, while the Israelis saw no point in compromising when they were getting nothing in return.

A Surprise From Bush

Even when the Saudis went through the motions of trying to be helpful, it became clear that their influence was limited primarily to obstructionism, and they had little clout for any positive steps. This became evident in 2000 when President Bill Clinton hosted the Camp David Summit.  Prince Bandar lobbied Yasser Arafat to accept the dramatic offer Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made to withdraw from 97 percent of the West Bank, dismantle most settlements, and establish a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Arafat said no, a decision that Bandar considered a betrayal and crime against the Palestinian people.

When George W. Bush came to power in early 2001, the Saudis were ecstatic. Yet almost from the outset, the Saudis had been surprised and frustrated by Bush’s Middle East policy. George H. W. Bush had been considered the most pro-Arab and anti-Israel president in history, and everyone, including the Israeli lobby, expected the son to follow in the father’s footsteps. It came as a shock when Bush demonstrated early in his term that he was not interested in becoming enmeshed in peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, which he saw as having little chance of success after Clinton’s failure to achieve an agreement before leaving office.

When Bush traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Abdullah to seek his help and personally lobby the king to increase production and lower oil prices. The country advertised as America’s closest Arab ally rebuffed the president on every issue. The king also made a point of criticizing the president for going to Israel earlier and making a pro-Israel speech in the Knesset.

Bush also quickly developed a close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was reviled in the Arab world for his hawkish views and controversial history as a military commander and defense minister. The Saudis were further outraged by Bush’s unwillingness to condemn Israel for its measures in response to Palestinian terrorism that had begun in September 2000. They decided to adopt their usual modus operandi of threatening the United States, which came in the form of a message conveyed by Bandar to Condoleezza Rice on August 27, 2001, which angrily denounced America’s biased policy and proclaimed the kingdom’s intention of protecting its interests “regardless of where America’s interests lie in the region.” Crown Prince Abdullah was so upset that he took the unprecedented step of refusing an invitation to the White House. George H. W. Bush subsequently called Abdullah to reassure him that his son’s “heart is in the right place,” and that he was “going to do the right thing.”[28]

A month before 9/11, however, after Bush criticized Arafat and defended Israel’s refusal to negotiate under terrorist threat, Abdullah wrote an angry twenty-five-page letter complaining about U.S. policy toward Israel and making vague threats about the possibility of unsheathing the oil weapon. Bandar was more specific, saying that Saudi Arabia would cut oil production by one million barrels a day and suggesting that the Saudis would stop cooperating with the CIA and FBI, refuse the use of their air bases, and call an emergency Arab summit to declare a freeze in relations with the United States. Bush responded in a letter to Abdullah outlining views far more sympathetic to the Saudi position than what he said publicly. Bush assured him of his concern for the Palestinians and made his first commitment to a Palestinian state, something no previous president had done before. The Saudis considered the letter “groundbreaking,” and it “transformed Bush’s reputation in the small circle of Saudis who run their country.”[29] Abdullah reportedly showed off the correspondence to fellow Arab leaders and hoped to press Bush to follow through on his positive statements. Bush was considering a meeting with Arafat and a major speech that would reflect policies very similar to those of Bill Clinton. Bandar was invited to discuss matters—on September 13. Everything changed, however, when Saudi terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center.

In June 2002, Bush announced his own vision of peace that was markedly different from Abdullah’s, placing the onus on the Arabs and Palestinians rather than Israel. While reiterating his support for the creation of a Palestinian state, he also called for the ouster of Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority, demanded an end to Palestinian terror, and asked the Arab states to build closer diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel that would result in full normalization of relations. The Saudi peace plan was subsequently shelved in 2003 in favor of the “road map for peace” drawn up by the Quartet — the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations — which required the Palestinians to stop terror and take a number of other steps toward peace, while also placing obligations on the Israelis and the Arab states. In June 2003, when Bush tried to relaunch the peace process in a meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah and other Arab leaders at Sharm al-Sheikh, he asked the Saudis to sign a joint statement supporting normalization with Israel, and Abdullah refused.[31]

When three years of Hamas rocket attacks finally provoked Israel to invade Gaza in December 2008, Bush supported Israel’s defensive action, but the fighting produced new images of Palestinian suffering that further stoked Abdullah’s anger.

Saudis Fund Terrorists

After 9/11, the Saudis tried to distance themselves from the hijackers and portray themselves as allies in the war on terrorism. Yet at the very time Crown Prince Abdullah was visiting President Bush at his ranch in Crawford on April 25, 2002, the Israeli army discovered extensive documentation demonstrating the funding of Palestinian terrorism by Saudi Arabia.

In fact, just two weeks earlier, the Saudis sponsored a telethon for “Palestinian martyrs.” While the Saudis denied that they were supporting terrorists, suggesting that the funds were for humanitarian assistance, the documents Israel captured during operations against terrorists in the West Bank showed that hundreds of thousands of dollars were being distributed to the families of terrorists by the Saudi Committee for Support of the Al-Quds Intifada, which had been created by the minister of the interior, Prince Nayef, at the suggestion of Crown Prince Abdullah, who had said the fund would contribute to “the children of the Palestinian martyrs.”

The Israelis also found Saudi government accounting schedules showing how much was paid to each Palestinian or his family, with the names of suicide bombers and others who carried out terror attacks highlighted. A table listing payments by the Saudi committee had the names of more than three hundred Palestinians who had died in the uprising, including many who attacked Israeli citizens. The Israelis later released a Saudi spreadsheet from the committee that recorded a payment to the suicide bomber who blew up a bus in Jerusalem on August 21, 1995, killing a U.S. citizen.[32]

The International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) also funneled money to Islamic committees in the territories associated with Hamas. An IIRO report captured by the Israelis said that Saudi money had been earmarked for the families of victims as well as Hamas-affiliated groups. Money was given, for example, to families whose sons had committed terror attacks such as the bombing of a Tel Aviv disco where twenty-three Israeli teenagers were killed and more than one hundred wounded, and a shooting at a bus station that killed three civilians and injured fourteen. An angry letter from the Saudis was found that complained about the revelation of the secret Saudi involvement in terror financing in a Palestinian newspaper report that thanked the kingdom for helping the families of terrorists.[33]

Ironically, Mahmoud Abbas, then a deputy to Yasser Arafat and now the president of the Palestinian Authority, complained to the Saudis that money from Prince Nayef’s committee was being given to the rival Hamas terrorists. Previously, the Saudis had been supportive of Arafat because his principal rivals were pro-Marxist Palestinian factions. The Israelis reported that the Saudis now, “for their own reasons (apprehension [about] PA corruption, hostility to Arafat, ideological proximity to Hamas) preferred to transfer the money to Hamas.”[34] In 2003, it was estimated that up to 60 percent of the Hamas budget was supplied from Saudi Arabia, some from government sources, and the rest from individuals and organizations whose activities are permitted by the government or protected by the Saudis. Israel also arrested a Hamas operative who admitted he was on his way to Saudi Arabia to discuss the development of Qassam rockets and seek additional funding for their development.[35]

The revelations about Saudi support for terror were not surprising given the kingdom’s long history as a sponsor of violence, from its early financing of the PLO to its later policy of underwriting suicide bombers under the guise of a welfare program for the families of “martyrs.” On October 20, 2000, for example, Crown Prince Abdullah recommended that $200 million be allocated for this purpose. Ultimately, more than $250 million was committed for the year 2000 alone. Another $109 million was raised in the April 2002 terrorthon hosted by Sheikh Saad al-Buraik, who was known to have referred to Jews as “monkeys” and called for a jihad.[36] These Saudi subsidies helped fuel the Palestinian war from 2000 to 2005, which killed more than a thousand Israelis, but the U.S. government remained silent while the Saudis portrayed themselves as interested in peace at the same time as they undermined American efforts to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Saudis’ actions highlighted an important change in the nature of that conflict from one between the Arab states and Israel to one between radical Islam and Israel. Egypt and Jordan have signed peace agreements with Israel, and several Gulf and North African Arab countries have had varying levels of contact with the Israelis and have shown a willingness to normalize relations. It is the radical Muslim terrorists, as well as their sponsors, then led by the Saudis and the Iranians, who transformed the Arab-Israeli dispute, which was largely political and geographical and therefore solvable, into an Islamic-Israeli conflict based on a theology that is irreconcilable.

Following the disclosures that Saudi Arabia was providing funding for terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Saudi public relations agent Michael Petruzzello tried to dismiss the evidence: “It is complete and utter nonsense that the Saudi government has been giving money to the families of suicide bombers.”[37] Prince Bandar launched into a fit of righteous indignation, accusing the Israelis of a shameful and counterproductive effort to discredit the “leading voice for peace.” He said that the charge that Saudi Arabia was paying suicide bombers was “totally baseless and false.” [38]

Apparently, Bandar didn’t read his own embassy press releases, which included one from January 2001 describing the Saudi Committee for Support of the Al-Quds Intifada run by Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef. The document boasted that the committee had distributed $33 million to the “families of 2,281 prisoners and 358 martyrs,” with martyrs often referring to those who engaged in attacks against Israel. A March press release referred to a $50 million donation to a pan-Arab fund to supplement the $5,333 Prince Nayef’s committee offered to each family that “suffered from martyrdom.” A month later, the embassy boasted how Nayef’s committee had disbursed $40 million to Palestinians, including “families of those martyred.”

Dinner With Tom Friedman

Crown Prince Abdullah invited New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to dinner in Riyadh and suggested that the Arabs would be prepared to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the disputed territories. When Friedman reported the conversation in his column of February 17, 2002, it caused a sensation. The “Abdullah Plan” suddenly became the focus of American and international diplomacy. Arabists in particular, saw a potential breakthrough in the long-stalled peace process. The effect, as the Saudis must have intended, was to divert attention in the United States from their connection to 9/11 and to shift them from “the box of states supporting terrorism to the box of peacemakers.”[39]

As it turned out, the seemingly forthcoming ideas that Friedman had publicized were substantially modified when the Arab League met to discuss them. When the “Arab Peace Initiative“ was announced on March 28, 2002, the plan no longer offered normalization of relations with Israel and added a number of prerequisites that were nonstarters for the Israelis, such as the requirement that Palestinian refugees be given the “right of return” to homes lost in the 1948 War. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Abdullah’s bluff and offered to negotiate on the basis of the Arab Peace Plan, but when it became clear that Abdullah would never invite Olmert to Riyadh or travel to Jerusalem, his sincerity was called into question.

Abdullah continued to harp on the Palestinian issue and expressed anger over President Bush’s support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In March 2008, the king told Vice President Cheney to pressure Israel to make a deal before Bush left office. Hoping to mollify Abdullah, Bush launched an eleventh-hour push for an agreement, sending Secretary of State Rice to the region. The Saudis undercut their purported interest in helping the Palestinians, however, by strengthening Hamas at the expense of the more “moderate” Fatah leaders that America backed. Since both the United States and Israel refused to deal with Hamas until it met the minimal conditions of recognizing Israel, renouncing terror, and agreeing to fulfill past agreements, Saudi interference virtually guaranteed the last year of shuttle diplomacy Rice pursued would fail.

Obama Bows to Saudis

Within days of Barack Obama’s inauguration, Prince Turki al-Faisal – a member of the royal family, a former Saudi intelligence chief, and former ambassador to the United States – warned, “Unless the new U.S. administration takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians, the peace process, the U.S.-Saudi relationship and the stability of the region are at risk.”[40] Responding like his predecessors, Obama waited less than twenty-four hours before calling Saudi King Abdullah to pledge fealty to the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

On his first foreign trip, Obama stopped in Saudi Arabia because he believed that if he placated King Abdullah’s demands to make the Palestinian issue a priority and pressured Israel, the Saudis would rally the Arab world to support his peace efforts. During the meeting, however, and in subsequent discussions, the Saudis declined to make any concessions to Israel. The Saudis were asked, for example, to modify the Arab peace plan to make it more palatable to Israel, but they refused.

By the end of 2009, the administration was so desperate to secure a concession the Saudis were asked to allow Israeli planes to overfly the kingdom. The Saudis denied the request. For the remainder of Obama’s term, the Saudis remained unwilling to support his peace initiative.

Nevertheless, the Saudis drew closer to Israel because of their feeling that Obama did not appreciate their interests and did not take a sufficiently hard line in dealing with Syria or Iran. Like Israel, they opposed the nuclear deal Obama negotiated and viewed Iran as their greatest threat. The relationship also became more open as Saudi officials began meeting with Israelis in public forums and allowing their photographs to be taken together, something unheard of in the past.

Trump Strengthens Ties

When Donald Trump took office, he quickly shifted U.S. policy and its public approach toward Israel and Saudi Arabia. Obama was a critic of both, provoking tensions and a lack of confidence in the reliability of his administration to understand and support their interests. Trump quickly rebuilt ties that had deteriorated under Obama by taking a hardline against the Palestinians and Iran and adopting a public posture of support for both governments.

One of the first actions Trump took to win Israel’s appreciation was the long overdue recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017 and the movement of the U.S. embassy there six months later. Critics warned Muslims would be in an uproar and U.S. interests endangered. Fear of their reaction had discouraged the United States and other nations from building embassies in Jerusalem, locating them instead in Tel Aviv.

In the past, the Saudis had threatened countries considering such a move. When Canada announced it would move its embassy in 1979, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait canceled more than $400 million of contracts with Canadian firms and threatened to withdraw their deposits from Canadian banks. The value of the Canadian dollar sank, and the country faced a potential economic crisis. The government subsequently postponed the embassy move, which remains in Tel Aviv.

The reaction to Trump’s announcement, however, was muted. The Saudis made perfunctory protests, but they did not pressure the United States to reverse its position. There are several possible reasons. One is they wanted to maintain good relations with Trump, who had agreed to sell them $110 billion worth of arms earlier in the year. Another is they did not want to jeopardize their alliance with Israel against Iran. A third reason is the Saudi public did not revolt, and the monarchy had no interest in fomenting unrest. Finally, they reconciled themselves to the reality that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.

In March 2018, the Trump administration convened a meeting to discuss the need for humanitarian assistance for the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians boycotted the meeting, which previously would have caused Arab leaders to do the same; however, the Saudis and others came to the meeting with Israeli officials. This was another indication of the Saudis’ growing willingness to minimize or ignore Palestinian concerns, in part out of frustration with their intransigence.

During a visit by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to the U.S. in 2018, two other striking developments occurred related to Israel. The first was the disclosure that the Saudis, for the first time, allowed an airline to use its airspace en route to Israel. The airline was Air India and not El Al, so it was only a small step forward; nevertheless, it was a milestone.

Even more significant was a comment made by MBS in an interview with The Atlantic, in which he said, “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.” When asked if Saudi Arabia has any “religious-based objection to the existence of Israel,” MBS replied, “We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people. This is what we have. We don’t have any objection against any other people.”

When the president released his peace plan in January 2020, it was condemned by the Arab League; nevertheless, Oman, the UAE, and Bahrain sent ambassadors to the White House for the announcement. While Saudi Arabia did not, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement said, “The Kingdom reiterates its support for all efforts aimed at reaching a just and comprehensive resolution to the Palestinian cause….The kingdom appreciates the efforts of President Trump’s administration to develop a comprehensive peace plan between the Palestinian and the Israeli sides, and encourages the start of direct peace negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides, under the auspices of the United States.”[41]

Other Gulf states have had more open and cordial relations with Israel; nevertheless, the Saudis reportedly played a role in U.S.-brokered talks that resulted in the establishment of ties between Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel. Given Saudi Arabia’s influence over its neighbors, they could not have signed the Abraham Accords without Saudi approval. As one indication of its support and shifting attitude, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace for the first time to Israeli commercial flights, initially to permit Israeli and Gulf officials to fly to each other’s capitals.

Aaron Boxerman noted that (MBS) “sees Israel as a natural partner for his plans to develop the kingdom and transform its economy from its dependence on oil.” MBS has said, “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.” When asked if Saudi Arabia has any “religious-based objection to the existence of Israel,” MBS replied, “We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people. This is what we have. We don’t have any objection against any other people.”

The Abraham Accords raised expectations that Saudi Arabia might be next to agree to establish relations with Israel. That hope was amplified when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, MBS, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a secret meeting in the Saudi city of Neom on November 22, 2020. This was believed to be the first known meeting between high-level Israeli and Saudi leaders. The Saudis denied the meeting took place, but news reports confirmed by Israeli officials indicated it did.

The meeting added to the sense that a dramatic change was on the horizon; however, Saudi officials insisted after reports of the meeting that their policy had not changed and that they would only establish ties if an agreement was reached between Israel and the Palestinians. 

Like other Arab leaders who believe that Jews have an outsized influence on U.S. Middle East policy, MBS likely sees improving relations with Israel as a way to win support from the pro-Israel lobby, which has in the past opposed arms sales to the kingdom because of its unwillingness to establish ties. It would also improve his image, which has taken a beating because of his arrest of female activists and critics, his prosecution of the war in Yemen, and his alleged role in the murder of dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi.

Even though the Saudis have been unwilling to take the leap and establish diplomatic relations with Israel, the two countries quietly work together. Ex-Saudi Intelligence Chief Turki Al-Faisal revealed in 2019 that secret relations between Israel and several Gulf states date back as far as 25 years. The two countries have shared intelligence since at least the 1980s and possibly earlier, according to Simon Henderson. Growing cooperation between the two countries has been an open secret since at least the signing of the Iranian nuclear agreement.

In 2020, articles written by Saudis, and appearing in Saudi publications, began to portray Israel in a more favorable light. They have also grown increasingly critical of the Palestinians’ failure to negotiate in good faith or show a willingness to compromise with Israel. An interview with Prince Bandar drew particular attention because of his scathing criticism of the failure of Palestinian leaders to reach an agreement with Israel, their attacks on the Abraham Accords, and their ungratefulness for the kingdom’s support.

Despite the warming of relations, Israel still has concerns about the Saudis’ arsenal. Under previous administrations, the United States sold the Saudis more than $100 billion worth of arms, including many of its most sophisticated weapons. In May 2017, the Trump administration agreed to the largest sale yet, $110 billion, including advanced air defense systems, ships, helicopters, intelligence-gathering aircraft, tanks, artillery, and cybersecurity systems.

Israel is especially concerned with the Saudi request for U.S. assistance in building a nuclear reactor, which could be used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. An official close to Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal said in June 2011, “If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us, and we will have to follow suit.” In January 2012, King Abdullah signed an agreement with China to cooperate in developing and using atomic energy for civilian purposes. In July 2015, Saudi Arabia announced its intention to establish a “military nuclear program” within a decade. 

The Saudis have plans to build at least two nuclear reactors and are seeking nuclear technology from the United States as well, but the U.S. insists the Saudis agree to abstain from enriching uranium, a constraint they are lobbying the United States to lift. Meanwhile, suspicions about Saudi intentions have been heightened by the discovery of a facility built with Chinese assistance to extract yellowcake from uranium. Yellowcake can be used to produce uranium for both civilian and military purposes.

The Verge of Normalization?

In the spring of 2022, the Saudis were in talks to build business and security relationships with Israel. The Saudis lifted the ban on Israelis visiting the kingdom, and a number of business deals were concluded. Globes reported in May that two multimillion-dollar desert agriculture deals were signed along with a medical equipment contract.

During his July 2022 visit to Israel, President Biden announced the Saudis gave Israeli commercial planes rights to fly over the kingdom. In exchange, Israel agreed to allow Saudi Arabia to take control of two islands in the Red Sea. This raised expectations that when Biden met with the Saudis after leaving Israel, he might persuade the Saudis to join the Abraham Accords. 

The prospect of normalization hit a snag due to a deterioration in relations between the Biden administration and the Saudis. During his campaign and after becoming President, Biden said he wanted to make MBS a pariah for ordering the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. When Biden visited Saudi Arabia after leaving Israel, he hoped to convince the Saudis to increase their oil production to bring down the cost of gas in the United States and boost the American economy before the midterm elections. Not surprisingly, after being insulted by Biden, MBS did not agree and, a few months later, collaborated with Russia to reduce oil production. This came not only weeks before the elections but also while Biden was leading an international effort to cut off Russian energy revenue that could be used to fund the war in Ukraine. Members of Congress then proposed stopping arms transfers to the Saudis, and Biden announced a reassessment of U.S.-Saudi policy. It is, therefore, unlikely that MBS will be willing to do anything, like normalizing relations with Israel, to help Biden.

Nevertheless, signs of an improvement in the relationship were evident in late October 2022 when Saudi Arabia hosted its Future Investment Initiative. Business people from around the world, including Israel, participated in the event. “The opportunities are amazing,” Bank Leumi’s Samer Haj-Yehia said on a panel that included the Saudi Export-Import Bank’s chief executive. Jonathan Medved, chief executive of online venture investing platform OurCrowd, appeared on a panel with two Saudis and commented, “We’re proudly from a little country just down the road called Israel.”

Medved told the Wall Street Journal that Israeli companies operating in the kingdom are becoming more common. “The fact that the business community is already engaging in different levels, and people like me and Samer are invited to speak is an extraordinary sign and pretty exciting,” he said. “But I think that, in general, we want to do more and talk less.”

The Journal reported that other Israelis, including former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s brother, were among the conference participants. MBS is the chairman of the organization that organized the meeting.

Another positive sign is the change related to the description and history of the Jewish people in Saudi textbooks. IMPACT-se CEO Marcus Sheff noted in May 2023: “Practically all the previously identified anti-Semitic material in Saudi Islamic Studies textbooks has now been removed. This follows the previous removal of significant amounts of anti-Semitism in other subjects over the last four years. The clear trend of moderation in relation to Israel, while still not recognizing the Jewish state, is highly noteworthy.”

“This is consistent with efforts to ease religious intolerance of Jews, incrementally preparing the way should a political decision be made on Israel normalization,” Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Gulf States Institute, told CNN.

Doubts about normalization were raised when Saudi Arabia unexpectedly announced it was reestablishing ties with Iran in March 2023. At the same time, the Saudis reportedly were discussing normalization with Israel in exchange for additional security guarantees from the United States, fewer restrictions on its arms purchases, and assistance in developing its civilian nuclear program. Though the Saudis publicly say they expect Israel to make some concessions to the Palestinians privately, they reportedly would be satisfied with some minimal steps, such as engaging in peace talks with Palestinian leaders.

The U.S., however, is wary of providing the Saudis with any nuclear technology because they fear it might be used to facilitate a military program aimed at countering Iran’s. President Biden would also face opposition from Democrats in Congress who want the U.S. to downgrade ties with the kingdom and halt arms sales. 

“If we’re going to enter into a relationship with the Saudis where we’re doing more significant arms sales, it should be in exchange for better behavior toward the United States, not just better behavior toward Israel,” Senator Christopher Murphy (D-CT) told the New York Times.

Abdulaziz Alghashian, a Saudi researcher, told the Times the Saudis aren’t interested in helping Biden after he said he wanted to make the kingdom a pariah. This was evident when Biden went to Riyadh and failed to convince MBS to increase oil production. “The Saudi ruling elite do not want Biden to be the American president to take credit for Saudi-Israeli normalization,” he said, “but they don’t mind Biden taking the blame for its absence.”

In May 2023, a story leaked that Netanyahu spoke to MBS about normalization before and after the Arab League summit that began on May 19. According to the report, no progress was made while the Saudis demanded several concessions to the Palestinians, including strengthening their security forces in the West Bank and giving them security control over the al-Aqsa Mosque and Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

At the summit, MBS said, “The Palestinian issue was and remains the central issue for Arab countries, and it is at the top of the kingdom’s priorities,” and one source said the prince wants to demonstrate he helped the Palestinians while obtaining greater security guarantees from the United States before agreeing to normalization.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen has expressed confidence the day is coming when relations will be established. “It’s not a matter of if, but of when. We and Saudi Arabia have the same interests,” he said.

Though it was not discussed in the calls, Israel has been seeking Saudi permission for years to permit direct flights from Israel to allow Israeli Muslims to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. When Biden visited the kingdom in July 2022, he said he approved of a “discussion to include direct flights from Israel to Jeddah for next year’s Hajj on approved carriers.” A decision was not made in time for the 2023 pilgrimage.

In July 2023, efforts to broker a deal for normalization picked up momentum when President Biden sent his national security adviser to Riyadh to meet with MBS. The Saudis reportedly continued to demand that the United States agree to a defense treaty with Saudi Arabia, including a commitment by the Americans to defend Saudi Arabia in case of an Iranian attack, sell the kingdom F-35 fighter jets and advanced missile defense systems, and help it establish a civil nuclear program The Saudis want Israel to pledge not to annex West Bank territories and make other concessions to the Palestinians.

Each of the conditions is problematic. Many members of Congress, particularly Democrats, remain angry over the murder of Khashoggi and other Saudi human rights abuses. The U.S. has provided the Saudis with a defense umbrella for decades, but if MBS insisted on a treaty that would require Senate ratification, it could be an uphill struggle. Congress could also make it difficult to deliver on the weapons requests, but no sale to the Saudis has been stopped in the past. Fear of the Saudis using any nuclear technology to pursue a bomb will also be an impediment to Congressional approval.

Israel will also have difficulty accepting the terms. While Netanyahu agreed to give up his plan to annex parts of the West Bank for normalization with Bahrain and the UAE, he will have a more difficult time making a more permanent commitment given that his coalition now depends on far-right lawmakers who would threaten to bring down the government to prevent such a deal. They also will not agree to any significant concessions to the Palestinians. MBS cares less about this than the Americans, so Israel might satisfy him by taking steps to improve conditions for them. The nuclear issue seemed likely to be a dealbreaker; however, national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi indicated Israel was not necessarily opposed to a civilian research program. He said Egypt and the [United Arab] Emirates operate nuclear research centers, and these are not dangerous.

A deal would be a historic breakthrough that could dramatically change the region. It would also provide Biden with a much-needed foreign policy accomplishment. Still, he lowered expectations when he said before the Riyadh meeting, “We’re a long way from there. We got a lot to talk about.”

In August 2023, Riyadh’s ambassador to Jordan became both a Saudi non-resident ambassador to the Palestinian Authority and Saudi consul-general in Jerusalem. Israel said it would not allow the Saudis to open a consulate in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, analyst Yossi Alpher suggested the appointment was “a kind of backhanded gesture of normalization with Israel.” He also said it was likely a power play by the Saudis to try to undermine Jordan’s role as custodian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. In addition, to satisfy Saudi demands that Israel make concessions to the Palestinians, Alpher says that Israel may reduce the IDF presence in Area A of the West Bank, release seriously ill Palestinian prisoners, and accelerate the development of a Palestinian gas field off the Gaza coast.

The Palestinians have issued their own demands, which include:

  • Transferring parts of Area C to the governance of the Palestinian Authority.
  • A ‘complete cessation’ of Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank.
  • Resuming Saudi financial support to the PA to the tune of around $200 million per year.
  • Re-opening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.
  • Resuming U.S.-brokered negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians from where they stopped under then-Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014.

The BBC observed: “Such concessions are very significant - reportedly already seen by the Americans as overreaching by the Palestinians. But they are a far cry from the official, publicly stated Palestinian position on Saudi-Israel normalization - which is to reject it outright if it does not leave them with an independent state.”

On the Israeli side, the only concession palatable to the government is the resumption of Saudi aid. The coalition would almost certainly fall if any of the others were accepted.

The Saudis subsequently offered to resume financial support for the Palestinian Authority, which had gradually reduced and stopped altogether in 2021. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Saudi officials say they are trying to secure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s support for open ties with Israel, providing more legitimacy to any eventual agreement and forestalling any accusations that the kingdom would sacrifice Palestinian efforts to establish an independent state to advance its own goals.” 

Meanwhile, negotiations between the Saudis and the Biden administration are expected to take many months before any deal on normalization might be finalized.

On August 29, 2023, an Air Seychelles flight to Israel was forced to make an emergency landing in Jeddah. The Israeli passengers were initially concerned when they learned they were in a country without diplomatic relations with their home. Their hosts proved to be “uber-nice,” in the words of one passenger, and were bused to a luxury hotel in the terminal. They were later picked up by another plane that took them home. 

“I really appreciate the warm way in which the Saudi authorities treated the Israeli passengers,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “I really appreciate the good neighborliness.”

The Saudis were less hospitable a week later, however, when they denied visas for Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Education Minister Yifat Kish to attend a UNESCO conference in Riyadh. The United States reportedly asked Israel to withdraw its request for visas. Subsequently, the Saudis allowed a delegation of nine Israelis, led by the head of the Antiquities Authority, to attend the meeting for the first time. Soon after, Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz attended a conference of the United Nations World Tourism Organization in the first public visit by an Israeli minister to the country.

Another positive development was the announcement at the annual G20 Summit plans for the India - Middle East - Europe Economic Corridor that was endorsed by the Saudis and that will include Israel. 

MBS did a rare interview in which he told Fox News that “Every day we get closer” to normalizing ties with Israel. “For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part,” he said. “And we have a good negotiations strategy til now. We got to see where we go. We hope that will reach a place that will ease the life of the Palestinians and get Israel as a player in the Middle East.”

To win support for their request for the U.S. to help establish a civil nuclear program as part of a normalization deal, the Saudis said they would accept IAEA safeguards to allow greater oversight of its nuclear activities. Israel was reportedly working with the Biden administration on a proposal to set up a U.S.-run uranium enrichment operation in the kingdom.

Historically, Saudi Arabia has opposed non-Muslims from holding public prayer services. Christians, usually working for foreign companies in the kingdom or serving in the U.S. military, sometimes pray in private homes or on a base. Jews in the military were allowed to defend the kingdom but not to pray there. During the administration of George W. Bush, for example, Colin Powell had to arrange for Jewish soldiers to be taken by helicopter to ships in the Persian Gulf if they wanted to worship.

Given this history, it was another sign of the changes in Saudi Arabia when Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi held a Sukkot service in Riyadh on October 2, 2023. According to the JTA, the Torah scroll was inscribed, “The Jewish Congregation, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In honor of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and all of their ministers and advisers” in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.

Karhi was in Saudi Arabia for the Extraordinary Congress of the Universal Postal Union; and the second minister allowed to attend a meeting in the kingdom in the last few weeks.

War in Gaza

The Gaza War brought movement toward normalization to a halt, which was likely one of the objectives when Hamas launched its attack and massacred 1,200 Israelis on October 7, 2023.

On November 10, Haaretz reported that leaders from the Gulf, Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Syria called for an end to “Israeli aggression against Gaza,” more humanitarian aid, and a freeze on international arms exports to Israel at an  Islamic-Arab summit in Riyadh. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) said Israel bears responsibility for “crimes committed against Palestinian people.”

Nevertheless, the Saudis and the Abraham Accords signatories blocked a resolution to prevent the transfer of U.S. military equipment to Israel from American bases in the Middle East region; suspend all diplomatic and economic contacts with Israel; cut back oil sales to the United States over Washington’s support for Israel; stop Israeli air traffic over the skies of the Gulf and send a joint delegation to the United States, Europe and Russia to push for a ceasefire.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Saudi Arabia in January 2024 and said the Saudis were still interested in normalizing relations with Israel, but only if Israel agreed to the principle of a two-state solution. Netanyahu rejected the idea as he had in the past. This is unlikely to discourage the Saudis, who historically have given lip service to the Palestinian cause but, like other nations, put their own interests first. Like former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, former Jordanian King Hussein, and the current Gulf leaders, who made peace with Israel without concessions to the Palestinians, MBS will not let them hold him hostage. What he cares about is U.S. help in developing a nuclear energy program, receiving an American security guarantee, and a commitment from Biden to continue to sell the kingdom sophisticated weapons. It is the Biden administration that wants a Palestinian state and is trying to use the Saudis as leverage against Israel.

The Saudis are also more likely to be encouraged to ally with Israel because of the war with Hamas. As Tomer Tzaban, author of two books on Gaza, explained: “The most important thing is the images coming out of Gaza. The Middle East understands the language of power, and the destruction in Gaza resonates in the Arab world. Even those countries that want to make peace with us – the Saudis, the Emiratis – want to know that they are forming a defense alliance with a strong country.”

After the U.S. National Security Council spokesman said that Riyadh was prepared to normalize relations before there is a ceasefire in Gaza and without progress toward Palestinian statehood, the Saudi foreign minister said, “The kingdom has communicated its firm position to the U.S. administration that there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognized on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, and that the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip stops and all Israeli occupation forces withdraw from the Gaza Strip.” 

One possible reason for the Saudis’ hardline is they don't want to look like they are selling out the Palestinians while the war is going on. Also, while MBS is functioning as the ruler, he is not the king, and Salman is far more hostile toward Israel.

Prior to Iran launching a drone and missile attack on Israel on April 13, 2024, Saudi Arabia passed on intelligence about the Iranian plan to the United States. The Saudis played down their involvement but may have also shot down projectiles entering its airspace. This was part of an integrated defense led by the United States that included Jordan, France, and the United Kingdom.

A couple of weeks later, reports indicated the Saudis were prepared to normalize relations with Israel but were undecided about the timing. The Saudis were considering whether to take the step before or after the U.S. election in November 2024. “The question is when, and the decision on the timing should be made within days. The debate in the Saudi government is whether to hand this 'candy' to President [Joe] Biden, who may not be reelected, or wait for the next president, assuming Biden will lose,” a diplomat told Haaretz. “The Saudis are considering whether an agreement with Israel, assuming its demands are met, will not be seen as aiding Biden's political campaign, which could damage relations with the next president.”

The media subsequently reported the administration was considering a bilateral arrangement with Saudi Arabia out of frustration with Netanyahu’s objection to the establishment of a Palestinian state as a condition of Saudi normalization. The Saudis saw this as a “Plan B,” but members of Congress indicated they would not agree to a deal without Israel.

An indication of the Saudis’ continued interest in normalization was a report that citizens were being arrested for social media posts related to the war in Gaza.

[1] Official British document, Foreign Office File No. 371/20822 E 7201/22/31; Elie Kedourie, Islam in the Modern World, (London: Mansell, 1980), pp. 69-74; Peter Grose, Israel in the Mind of America, (New York: Knopf, 1983), p. 151.

[2] Michael Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), p. 469.

[3] Parker T. Hart, Saudi Arabia and the United States, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), p. 42.

[4] King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud to President Truman, October 30, 1947, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1947, vol. 5, 1212. [Henceforth FRUS.]

[5] The minister in Saudi Arabia (Childs) to the secretary of state, December 4, 1947, in FRUS 1947, vol. 5, 1336; minister in Saudi Arabia (Childs) to the secretary of state, December 15, 1947, in FRUS 1947, vol. 5, 1341.

[6] Eliahu Elath, Zionism at the U.N., (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1976), p. 309; Daniel Yergin, The Prize, (New York: Free Press, 1991), p. 426.

[7] Quoted in Yergin, The Prize, p. 426.

[8] State Department draft minutes of discussions at the State–Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting, (May 2, 1951), in FRUS, 1951, vol. 5, 655–56.

[9] Memorandum of a conversation, (February 7, 1957), 101–2; editorial note, in FRUS, 1957, vol. 17 (Arab-Israeli Dispute), 498.

[10] Memorandum of a conversation, (April 4, 1958), in FRUS, 1958–60, vol. 13, 36–38.

[11] Memorandum of conversation, Department of State, December 5, 1957, in FRUS, 1957, vol. 17 (Arab-Israeli Dispute), 843n.

[12] Near East Report, (October 4, 1966).

[13] Memorandum for the record, (May 24, 1967), in FRUS, 1964–68, vol. 34.

[14] Dore Gold, Hatred’s Kingdom, (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2003), pp. 82–83.

[15] Raymond Close, “Intelligence and Policy Formulation, Implementation and Linkage: A Personal Perspective,” remarks at the Thirteenth Annual Arab-US Policymakers Conference, Washington, D.C., (September 13, 2004).

[16] Yergin, Prize, 595–96.

[17] Steven Emerson, The American House of Saud (New York: Franklin Watts, 1985), pp. 23, 28.

[18] “The Saudi Oil Threat,” Washington Post, (April 20, 1973); Wall Street Journal, (April 26, 1973).

[19] It was unusual for the oil companies to put anything in writing; they preferred to communicate their views orally. ; Nadav Safran, Saudi Arabia: The Ceaseless Quest for Security, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 156; Yergin, Prize, 605; Kenneth C. Crowe, America for Sale, (New York: Anchor, 1980), p. 153.

[20] Yergin, Prize, p. 615; Safran, Saudi Arabia, p. 156.

[21] Rachel Bronson, Thicker Than Oil (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 118.

[22] Interview with Hermann Eilts, August 12, 1988, transcript, ADST.

[23] Steven L. Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 362. Confirmed in an e-mail to the author by former Israel High Court chief justice Aharon Barak, who took notes at the meeting where Begin made his pledge.

[24] Jimmy Carter, “Tampa Florida Question-and-Answer Session with Florida Newspaper Editors,” (August 30, 1979).

[25] Fahd interview, Washington Post, (May 25, 1980). Islamic conference was held January 14–30, 1981, and Haig visit was April 7–8, 1981. Safran, Saudi Arabia, pp. 326, 328.

[26] Near East Report, June 11, 1982.

[27] Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), pp. 72–75, 218.

[28] Jane Perlez, “Bush Senior, on His Son’s Behalf, Reassures Saudi Leader,” New York Times, (July 15, 2001).

[29] David B. Ottaway, The King’s Messenger (New York: Walker, 2008), pp. 152–53, 269; David Ottaway and Robert Kaiser, “Saudi Leader’s Anger Revealed Shaky Ties,” Washington Post, (February 10, 2002); Ross, Missing Peace, 786.

[30] Patrick E. Tyler, “Mideast Turmoil: Arab Politics; Saudi to Warn Bush of Rupture Over Israel Policy,” New York Times, (April 25, 2002).

[32] David Tell, “The Saudi terror subsidy,” Weekly Standard, (May 20, 2002).

[33] Gold, Hatred’s Kingdom, 202; Timmerman, Kenneth R. “Documents detail Saudi terror links: Saudi-government accounting schedules showing payments to families of suicide bombers are among records Israel seized from Palestinian terrorist cells,” Insight on the News, (June 10, 2002),

[34] Gold, Hatred’s Kingdom, 199–200; Stephen Schwartz, The Two Faces of Islam. (NY: Anchor Books, 2002), p. 238.

[35] Brisard, Jean-Charles. “Terrorism Financing,” Report prepared for the President of the Security Council, United Nations, (December 19, 2002); Mathew Levitt, “Who Pays for Palestinian Terror?” Weekly Standard, (August 25, 2003).

[36] Schwartz, Two Faces of Islam, pp. 238, 276–77.

[37] Kenneth R. Timmerman, “Documents detail Saudi terror links: Saudi-government accounting schedules showing payments to families of suicide bombers are among records Israel seized from Palestinian terrorist cells,” Insight on the News, (June 10, 2002),

[38] Ben Barber, “Saudi millions finance terror against Israel; Officials say papers prove it,” Washington Times, (May 7, 2002).

[39] Thomas L. Friedman, “An Intriguing Signal from the Saudi Crown Prince,” New York Times, (February 17, 2002); Gold, Hatred’s Kingdom, p. 197.

[40] “Saudi Prince Says US Ties at Risk over Mideast,” Reuters, (January 23, 2009).

[41] Omri Nahmias, “Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, UAE welcome Trump peace plan,” Jerusalem Post, (January 29, 2020).

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Photo: Karhi - Israeli Communications Ministry.