Israelis Couldn't Care Less About Saudi Normalization If It Means Hamas Endures

biden netanyahu
(Getty Images)
June 18, 2024

JERUSALEM—The Biden administration has put potential normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia at the center of its campaign to pressure the Jewish state to end the war in Gaza.

In a speech late last month, President Joe Biden pitched Saudi normalization as a reason for Israelis to back a plan for a permanent ceasefire with Hamas, the dominant Iran-backed Palestinian terror group in Gaza. Instead of choosing "indefinite war" and "isolation in the world," Biden said, "Israel could become more deeply integrated into the region, including—it's no surprise to you all—a potential historic normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia. Israel could be part of a regional security network to counter the threat posed by Iran."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in testimony before Congress the previous week that the Saudis had all but agreed to normalization with Israel as part of would-be mega-deal with the United States. Israel just needs to stop fighting Hamas and commit to a "credible pathway to a Palestinian state," Blinken said. "Israel will have to decide whether it wants to proceed and take advantage of the opportunity to achieve something that it has sought from its founding."

"What do you want more—Rafah or Riyadh?" New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in April, channeling the Biden administration in addressing Israel. "Do you want to mount a full-scale invasion of Rafah to try to finish off Hamas—if that is even possible[?] …  Or do you want normalization with Saudi Arabia, an Arab peacekeeping force for Gaza and a U.S.-led security alliance against Iran?"

"This is one of the most fateful choices Israel has ever had to make," continued Friedman. "And what I find both disturbing and depressing is that there is no major Israeli leader today in the ruling coalition, the opposition or the military who is consistently helping Israelis understand that choice—a global pariah or a Middle East partner—or explaining why it should choose the second."

Nearly two months after Friedman's lament, Israelis have remained overwhelmingly uninterested in Saudi or regional normalization if it means trading that normalization for what they consider a premature end to the Gaza war that leaves Hamas intact.

Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, an Israeli Foreign Ministry special envoy and activist for Israeli-Gulf cooperation, told the Washington Free Beacon that most Israelis would like normalized relations with Saudi Arabia, which could have economic as well as security benefits. But "the question is," Hassan-Nahoum said, "what price do we have to pay?" Hassan-Nahoum noted that the question of Saudi normalization rarely even comes up in the wartime national conversation.

"There's so much going on that, honestly, Saudi normalization is a bulletin in the news now and again, but it's not the item on the news," she said. "Nobody in Israel is really talking about normalization when the price is bending over backward and accepting genocidal terrorists on our borders for the rest of time."

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly rejected a trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israeli normalization deal and has publicly rejected the preconditions—saying Israel must achieve "total victory" over Hamas and cannot tolerate a Palestinian "terror state" in Gaza or the West Bank following Hamas's Oct. 7 massacre and mass abduction of Israelis. Netanyahu's many critics and rivals have hardly objected, and polls have shown a large majority of the public sees normalization as unimportant relative to Israel's multifront war against Iran and its terrorist affiliates.

"Normalization, shmormalization, Israelis don't care about this," Brig. Gen. (Res.) Jacob Nagel, a former head of Israel's National Security Council, told the Free Beacon. "In their top 10 list of concerns, it's No. 11."

Nagel, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has been a cautious advocate of Saudi normalization, which he said has the potential to unlock greater regional military and economic cooperation for Israel. But he said Israelis are rightly focused on defeating their genocidal enemies on the battlefield.

"For the past several months, Israelis have continued to experience the relentless rocket sirens, the trauma of the missing hostages, loved ones fighting on the front, and a precipitous spike in terrorism that has killed dozens in Israel since October 7," Nagel cowrote in an op-ed earlier this month. "Given the very real threats, Israelis overwhelmingly support the war in Gaza and will likely continue to do so until Hamas is no longer able to terrorize the country."

The Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv-based think tank, found in mid-April that 89 percent of Israelis, including 95 percent of the country's Jewish majority, support the war to "bring down Hamas's regime in the Gaza Strip," most of them "very strongly." A survey by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a think tank in Jerusalem, at the end of May showed that 64 percent of Israelis, including 74 percent of Jews, oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state in exchange for Saudi normalization.

Hebrew University of Jerusalem pollsters in late March asked 1,549 Jewish Israelis to rank seven of the country's "interests" in order of importance. Normalization with Saudi Arabia and "other moderate Arab countries" tied for last place, alongside preservation of Israel's international image. The top-ranked interest by far was continuation of the Gaza war until "the eradication of Hamas and the return of the hostages."

Respondents also named Saudi normalization as Israel's least important diplomatic priority. They said the country's primary demand of its allies, from a list of seven options, should be continued military and diplomatic assistance from the United States "until the complete eradication of Hamas rule."

According to the polling, which has not previously been published, Jewish Israelis are open to Saudi involvement in the governance of post-war Gaza, a possibility both Biden and Netanyahu have raised. A plurality of respondents, 34 percent, said Israel should transfer control of Gaza to "moderate Arab countries," such as Saudi Arabia. But 23 percent supported annexation of Gaza to Israel, and just 5 percent supported the Biden administration's plan to put the terrorism-supporting Palestinian Authority in charge of the territory..

"Saudi normalization is a luxury, and that's how the public treats it," Nimrod Nir, who led the polling as part of an omnibus survey of wartime public sentiment, told the Free Beacon. "It depends on so many conditions that don't apply right now. When you can see your enemy with binoculars, it doesn't help you to fantasize about people who are sitting 2,000 miles away in Riyadh."

Hamas leaders have said the Oct. 7 attack was intended in part to block growing regional normalization with Israel, and they appear to have succeeded.

In September, a deal for Saudi normalization was by all accounts in the offing and making headlines in Israel. The Saudis were reportedly prepared to largely set aside the Palestinian issue, and a survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank in Jerusalem, found that roughly 60 percent of Jewish Israelis believed normalization was fairly or very important, including majorities on the political left, right, and center.

Netanyahu—who signed the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020 and campaigned on Saudi normalization in 2022—was reportedly on board with controversial planning for the United States to potentially run a civilian nuclear program in Saudi Arabia as part of a deal.

In recent months, however, ministers from Netanyahu's Likud party have argued that lasting normalization can only come after victory over Hamas.

"Peace is only made with strong people," Eli Cohen, Israel's foreign minister turned energy minister and a member of the security cabinet, said in an interview with Israel Hayom in April. "The countries of the region are testing us. That is why we need to continue the war until total victory. This will secure our future and lead to the expansion of additional peace agreements in the future."

"Of course we want to expand the circle of peace. We haven't been shy about this," Tal Heinrich, a spokeswoman for the prime minister, told Reuters last month. "[But] any peace initiative that jeopardizes Israel's security is not something that we see as real peace."

While Netanyahu's leading political opponents have occasionally criticized him for rejecting Saudi normalization, they have stopped short of demanding he accept the post-Oct. 7 preconditions. Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, and Benny Gantz, a former member of Netanyahu's three-man war cabinet, have called only for the resumption of negotiations with Saudi Arabia in the name of improving Israel's relations with the United States and other Western states.

Gantz last month announced six conditions for his continued membership in Netanyahu's government, the fifth of which was: "Advance normalization with Saudi Arabia as part of a comprehensive process to create an alliance with the free world and the West against Iran and its allies." But the following day, Gantz's fellow National Unity minister Hili Tropper clarified that the political alliance opposes establishing a Palestinian state in exchange for Saudi normalization. Gantz made no mention of normalization in his resignation speech last week.

Matan Vilnai, the chairman of Commanders for Israel's Security, an advocacy group of left-leaning retired Israeli generals, told the Free Beacon that Israel should immediately accept Biden's offer of Saudi normalization. Vilnai said the proposal would allow Israel to "have a peace process with the Saudis, advance the Palestinian issue, and at the same time fight Hamas."

Asked how Israel could continue to fight Hamas after agreeing to a permanent ceasefire with the terrorists, Vilnai suggested a compromise could be found.

"We have to discuss with the Americans, and after the discussion, we will understand what we can do and what we can't do," he said.

Vilnai acknowledged that the Israeli public has little interest in such an arrangement. But he said the role of a "real government"—as opposed to Netanyahu's coalition—is to make long-term strategic decisions and "build" public opinion accordingly.

"Government is not the people in the street. Government is seeing the whole picture. Government is looking to the future," he said. "Public opinion is very important, but you build it. It does not come out of the sky."

According to Brig. Gen. (Res.) Amir Avivi, the head of the Israel Defense and Security Forum, a right-leaning advocacy group of Israeli military reservists that advises Netanyahu, it is the Biden administration's Middle East policy that is being dictated by people in the street—specifically fringe pro-Hamas activists.

"Most Israelis are connected to reality. They understand perfectly well the danger we are facing, and they understand this danger is existential," Avivi told the Free Beacon.

"The U.S. administration is looking toward the election, and they simply want everything to be quiet," he went on. "They think: 'We will make peace with Saudi Arabia and do a very nice event at the White House, and this will bring us to November.' … They're basically sacrificing Israel's security for the purpose of American politics."

The White House and the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment for this report.