The Saudi Plan of Shimon Peres

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of our prominent statesmen, the former Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs writes about how he thinks Shimon Peres would have forged a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia.

Given the opportunity to promote an Israeli-Saudi peace agreement, an American friend called and posed an unexpected question, “How would Peres handle the challenge?” This is what came to mind.

Shimon Peres, whose 100th birthday would have been celebrated this month, truly believed that within every great crisis, lies an equally great opportunity. In his view, the constitutional crisis together with the chance to make peace with Saudi Arabia, creates a perfect context for a grand-bargain with multiple purposes: to heal the rifts within our society, to radically change Israel’s relations with the Arab and Muslim world (“A New Middle East”… remember?), and to stop Israel’s slide into a bi-national apartheid reality.

A peace agreement with Saudi Arabia, the producer of much of the world’s oil and guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites, would be no less than a historic turning point. Such an agreement would illustrate the acceptance of Israel in a region that once denied its very existence, and it would boost legitimacy in other countries, including Malaysia and Indonesia, for normalizing relations with Jerusalem.

The Saudis fear Iran and demand that the deal include a defense treaty with the United States. An American stance on Saudi Arabia’s side would bolster Israel’s security because it would isolate and weaken Iran. The American tendency to downplay the region’s importance would be mitigated and the strategic vacuum that invites in actors unfriendly to Israel would also be diminished.

The Saudis have also demanded American assistance in establishing a civilian nuclear program. Peres would argue that it is better that this inevitability ripen under American supervision. Otherwise, Russia, China, or Pakistan would fulfill Riyadh’s aspirations.

I believe that Peres was not horrified by Saudi Arabia’s requests to be equipped with advanced weapons. He had trust in the oversight the United States would insist upon, and also in its commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge. Regarding the Palestinian issue, the Saudis insist on Israeli concessions so that their ambition to lead the Arab and Muslim world would not be undermined. They are tired of the Palestinians but are aware of the emotions their plight arouses in the Arab street.

The experienced statesman would take advantage of the specific interests and needs of the various players. President Biden aims to demonstrate achievement in the face of increased Chinese activity in the Middle East. A US-brokered Israeli-Saudi peace agreement would raise Biden’s political stock ahead of the 2024 presidential election campaign. But to meet Saudi demands, the administration will need Netanyahu’s help in softening some congressional opposition. The cooperation that will be required between Washington and Jerusalem (including preparatory measures to circumvent Iranian attempts to sabotage the agreement) will mark a positive turn in the relations between the countries that have known severe tensions since the establishment of Israel’s current far-right government.

The required Israeli concessions to the Palestinians have a multifaceted role: a fig leaf for the Saudis, mobilizing the support of cautious elements in Biden’s party, and most important in Peres’ eyes, stopping Israel’s annexation process in the West Bank. Peres would pursue Israeli concessions sufficiently “annoying” to keep Smotrich and Ben-Gvir out of the government (commitment to the principle of dividing the land, limiting settlement to the existing blocs, etc.).

Shimon Peres. Photo by Kobi Richter/TPS

To make all of this possible, Peres would devise an intra-Israeli political package-deal: a unity government to be led by Netanyahu until the next elections (when he would retire from political life); freezing Likud’s judicial reform agenda until the next Knesset is installed, beginning discussions on establishing a “thin constitution,” and of course, halting all legal proceedings against Netanyahu as part of a comprehensive amnesty program in honor of Israel’s 75th anniversary.

In order to save Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, Peres would embroider a golden parachute for Netanyahu that would land him on the stage where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded. He would have put aside past personal enmity and paved a path that would allow Netanyahu to go down in the pages of history as a leader who prevented a civil war and achieved a game changing peace agreement with Saudi Arabia.

My American friend pondered for a moment, trying in vain to figure out who would know how to stitch such a bold and ambitious deal and then blurted out, “Where is Shimon Peres when he is so desperately needed?”

First published by ‘The Times of Israel’.