During the last year of Donald Trump’s presidency, the question of whether Saudi Arabia would make peace with Israel had come down to a question of when.
The terms of such a deal were more or less agreed during Trump’s tumultuous term, thrashed out between his envoy and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the kingdom’s effective ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, who held a very different view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from other Saudi leaders.
Their outlook centred on Iran rather than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being the centre of the region’s dysfunction. And Israel, they agreed, could help, not hinder, progress on that score. Prince Mohammed eschewed his father and uncles’ views that a return to 1967 lines was a starting point for peace, in favour of the Kushner line that Palestinian leaders had caused talks to stagnate.
Ties warmed quickly, especially from May 2017, when Saudi Arabia received Trump as a conquering hero after he overturned the nuclear deal with Tehran and reorientated Washington’s focus to Riyadh.
The secret channels used to communicate between the kingdom and Israel were discarded. So was the need for mediators, as Saudi officials made regular visits to Tel Aviv and vice versa. Denials of such trips were replaced by hints that they had taken place. Then came peace deals with Saudi allies, the UAE and Bahrain, and now a visit by Benjamin Netanyahu to Prince Mohammed on Saudi soil that Israel didn’t bother to disguise.
Despite a flight path visible on flight tracking sites, which showed the arrival of Netanyahu’s preferred charter jet on the shores of the Red Sea city of Neom, Riyadh responded with a pro forma denial.
There to meet the Israeli prime minister on the shores of the Red Sea was outgoing US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, on a mission to finalise as much as he can before he loses his job in eight weeks. Securing a peace pact is something Pompeo, Kushner and Trump have desperately pushed for and such a deal would indeed be seismic in the Middle East, where many are nervously awaiting its impact.
The so-called Trump peace plan offered up to $50bn in international investment for the creation of a Palestinian state on a sliver of the West Bank, which would not require Israel to uproot any of its settlements there. It was widely denounced as a Pythonesque approach to peace that effectively expected a Palestinian capitulation.
The Palestinians, fearful of their cause all but being obliterated, have flagged restarting talks when Joe Biden takes over the White House and have resumed security cooperation with Israel in advance. Their hope is that Prince Mohammed will not sign up to the plan before 20 January, presenting the incoming president with a fait accompli.
Prince Mohammed knows what such a concession would mean, both for the kingdom and for Trump. He had given the go-ahead for Bahrain, a junior ally of Riyadh, to sign a deal and had been inclined to follow suit if Trump had won a second term.
His reward for doing so would have been significant; access to defence technology that could have put the kingdom on a strategic par with Israel was one inducement. Investment and standing with Washington were others.
His incentive to do so now though is less clear. Unless Trump’s aides can conjure up a way to offer rewards that would be safeguarded when the White House changes leader, Prince Mohammed may decide not to play his hand for now. How normalising ties would affect relations with the incoming administration, and whether doing so may influence Biden on Iran, remain key considerations.
Pompeo, a Christian Zionist who sees safeguarding Israel as a divine mission, has a lot to play for in the coming weeks. At face value, the heir to the Saudi throne has much more time – and a lot more to consider. Meanwhile, after a miserable four years in the US tipped the balance of power even further from them, the Palestinian hope is that Biden will somehow stop their slide.