Could Bibi give up his coalition for a Saudi deal?

Netanyahu knows that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will have a 'shopping list' of concessions for the Palestinians, he also knows what his allies at home will find acceptable


Jews pray while activists protest against gender segregation in the public space during a public prayer on Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the holiest of Jewish holidays, September 25, 2023. Photo by Itai Ron/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** יום כיפור כיפורים כיכר דיזנגוף הפרדה הפרדה מרחב ציבורי תל אביב

September 28, 2023 12:23

Whatever the outcome of Israel’s ongoing political and constitutional crisis, the events of Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv this week will be remembered as a low point.

Clips circulated earlier this week of a rowdy confrontation between secular Telavivians and religious Israelis — some local and others who had come from out of town — who tried to hold prayers with a separation between men and women.

It may not be directly connected to the nine-month struggle over the government’s “legal reform” but it was, without a doubt, a direct consequence of the deep split it has caused in Israeli society.

The mass Yom Kippur prayers in Dizengoff Square began in 2020 during the second wave of Covid 19, when the shuls in Tel Aviv were forced to close. They were seen then as a unifying event for Telavivians of all walks of life.

The event was repeated in the next two years even when the synagogues were open.

But in 2023, after nine months that have pitted Israelis against Israelis fighting for the very identity of their country, such a scene is no longer possible.

The situation is made no easier by both sides having a totally factual and justifiable narrative.

Those protesting against the segregated prayers are right in saying that the far-right national-religious group Rosh Yehudi, which organised the prayers, was acting in contravention of City Hall’s decision not to allow physical barriers in public spaces, a decision backed up by court rulings, and was in effect imposing an Orthodox tradition in an open area used mainly by secular citizens.

And even if the separated prayers had taken place in previous years (in the first year there had been no barriers of any kind) things have now changed and the secular will no longer tolerate an organisation with links to homophobic rabbis.

Rosh Yehudi, its supporters and many of those who arrived on Yom Kippur eve to pray in Dizengoff Square, are right in saying that while they tried to carry out a hallowed Jewish tradition, they were heckled and jostled by a group of ultra-secularists who prevented hundreds of Jews from peacefully praying there on Yom Kippur. Both narratives are essentially true and both groups cannot currently co-exist peacefully in today’s Israel.

As Yom Kippur ended, politicians on both sides of the divide rushed in to score political points. Unsurprisingly, Benjamin Netanyahu took the lead: in his statement he rushed to distinguish between “left-wing protesters” on the one side, and “Jews” on the other — as if both sides weren’t Jewish.

But even he preferred not to dwell on the event too much. After all, he had returned to Israel only a few hours before Yom Kippur and he wants Israelis to focus now on only one thing: the prospects of peace with Saudi Arabia.


In 2018, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, then still the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and already the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, met a group of Jewish-American leaders during a visit to New York.

He and his fellow crown prince, Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman, had already made a strategic decision to normalise relations with Israel, he said. But the pace of the process and particularly when to ultimately establish diplomatic ties would be determined mainly by one factor.

Both crown princes, MBZ and MBS, have been conducting lengthy in-depth polling of public opinion, not only within their own kingdoms but throughout the Arab world.

They wanted to gauge not just the potential support or opposition to such a move but also the levels of support in the region for the Palestinians.

And while these, Crown Prince MBZ intimated, were nowhere near as high as in past decades, they remained significant enough to be a consideration in both the timing and terms of a future agreement with Israel. A deal, when it came, would have to include some “Palestinian clause”.

Two years later, when MBZ spearheaded what would become the Abraham Accords, which included also Bahrain and Morocco, he indeed had something for the Palestinians. Netanyahu, he announced, had promised him not to proceed with any annexation of the West Bank.

It was an empty gesture. While during the three election campaigns of 2019 and 2020 Netanyahu had made promises to his far-right base to annex parts of the occupied territories, he was in reality hesitant to go through with it, especially as he had failed to secure the blessing of the Trump administration for such a move.

In effect there was no political price for him to pay. His coalition at the time did not include parties demanding annexation and it was about to collapse anyway, due to him breaking his promise to Benny Gantz to pass a budget. But MBZ could say to the Palestinians that he had done something for them.

The next stage of normalisation is upon us and this time it’s the big one — with the Saudis. MBS said in an interview last week: “Every day we get closer. It seems it’s for the first time real.”

This week, for the first time, an Israeli minister, Haim Katz, is openly attending a conference in the desert kingdom. And next week two more ministers are expected to do the same.

On the face of it, these are just routine work visits, but the fact that they are even happening, just like that, is historic. This is what normalisation looks like. But it’s not yet an actual deal.

In his interview last week, MBS mentioned the Palestinians basically every time he mentioned Israel. Sometimes he even mentioned them first. But he provided absolutely no hint of what kind of “Palestinian clause” he wants in the agreement with Israel, beyond saying vaguely, “We need to solve that part,” “give the Palestinians their needs” and ensure “a good life for the Palestinians”.

Nobody can predict for sure what he will ultimately settle for. There are two versions circulating of MBS’s demands on that front and both are the product of wishful thinking.

There are those who are convinced that he will demand a commitment by Israel to the two-state solution, a freeze on settlement-building and more autonomy for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

In other words, a shopping list that will cause the far-right parties to leave the coalition and force Netanyahu, if he wants the Saudi deal — and he does — into a humiliating power-sharing agreement with Gantz. This is what you hear mainly from American and Palestinian sources.

And then there’s the prediction that MBS will make do with “economic matters”, such as movement of goods, faster border crossings, and the building of industrial and free-trade zones. Not surprisingly, these predictions, which will keep the coalition intact, are coming from Netanyahu’s surroundings.

“Bibi is like Tarzan,” says a former aide. “He swings between the trees through the jungle to his destination, but if you look closely, he never lets go of one vine before firmly grasping the next one.

"Even if he knows that the price of a deal with the Saudis is losing the far-right, he will say nothing to jeopardise his coalition before he absolutely has to.”

September 28, 2023 12:23

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