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Paolo Confino

Potentially historic deal to normalize Saudi-Israel relations is ‘off the table’ after this weekend’s 9/11-scale attack, top political analyst says

A Saudi Arabian man dressed in a traditional thobe stands in front of a sign the reads Israel in a large conference hall. (Credit: Fayez Nuredline—AFP/Getty Images)

The escalating events in Israel this weekend will have cascading effects on its foreign policy and, in turn, the entire Middle East. The Israeli government had previously been talking with Saudi Arabia about normalizing diplomatic relations. The deal would have been a historic achievement by two of the region’s major power players, both American allies, after decades of estrangement that bordered on hostility. 

However, after Hamas’s recent terrorist attacks and Israel’s subsequent declaration of war, that agreement “is for now off the table,” according to Ian Bremmer, president and founder of the geopolitical consulting firm Eurasia Group.   

Bremmer called these attacks “Israel’s 9/11” because they came as a surprise and targeted civilians. They were also “the first attacks deep into Israel,” he said. Because of the unprecedented national security crisis, Israel and Saudi Arabia will be forced to reconsider, and “that would leave the Palestinians diplomatically more isolated than they [have] ever been,” Bremmer wrote in an analyst note on Monday. 

Since the start of the war there is no official word from Israel or Saudi Arabia about the status of their talks, which the U.S. is helping to mediate. 

Saudi Arabia issued a statement on Saturday, the day Hamas fighters entered Israel, killing civilians and taking others hostage, in which it called for an end to further escalation and blamed Israel’s policies. “The Kingdom recalls its repeated warnings of the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the continued occupation,” Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry posted on X, formerly Twitter

The statement, which offered little support for Israel, drew criticism from U.S. foreign policy officials. Sen. Lindsey Graham reportedly spoke to a senior Saudi official, telling him, “If you want a normal relationship with the United States, this is not a normal statement,” the New York Times reported. Graham also reportedly admonished Saudi Arabia for being in “the cheering section” for Hamas and Iran’s Lebanese proxy group, Hezbollah, which the U.S. and Saudi Arabia both designate a terrorist organization

There may have been a different intended audience for the statement, according to Bernard Haykel, a professor of Middle East studies at Princeton University and among the world’s leading experts on Saudi Arabia. “The Saudi statement was intended to save face in the Arab and Islamic world in which the Palestinian cause remains important,” he told Fortune. 

During the Trump administration, the U.S. helped broker the Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic ties between Israel and the Gulf States of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Israel later signed agreements with Muslim countries Morocco and Sudan. Despite being announced with great fanfare, including the Arab countries that had previously been hostile to Israel, Arab citizens across the Middle East were less enthused by the deals. Nearly a year after the Abraham Accords were signed, the Washington Post termed them an “afterthought” in the region’s geopolitics. 

Bremmer says the latest escalation would make it unpalatable for Israel and Saudi Arabia to pursue a deal. “The Saudi foreign ministry condemned the attacks but also said Israel was responsible for them, because of their historic treatment of Palestinians (a statement echoed by a number of…governments in the region) that makes opening diplomacy impossible for both countries,” Bremmer wrote in the same note.  

So far, Saudi Arabia is waiting to see how the war between Hamas and Israel unfolds before resuming talks, the New York Times reported. Saudi Arabia is likely waiting to see if large numbers of Palestinian civilians die, which might turn public sentiment in the Arab world against Israel.

“If Israel’s retaliation leads to many tens of thousands of Palestinian deaths, then Saudi will have a hard time justifying a peace with Israel,” Haykel said. 

Efforts to stop that deal could have been an impetus for the surprise attack on Saturday. “It’s too early to tell, but Hamas/Iran did these attacks in part to stymie the normalization process,” Haykel said. Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been geopolitical rivals in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s decision to normalize relations with Israel has likely made Iran especially uneasy about its role in the region. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps signed off on the attack, citing senior sources with Hamas and Hezbollah. Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. had “not yet seen” intelligence confirming any involvement by Iran. 

Saudi Arabia is also in the midst of negotiating a defense treaty with the U.S., which may be imperiled as well, Bremmer adds, casting even further uncertainty on the kingdom’s foreign policy. The war in Gaza “makes it harder for the United States to support near-term improvement of Saudi relations, including the civilian nuclear deal and alliance upgrade, which in this environment would now be soundly condemned by Congress,” he said.

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