The startling clash between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, which threatens to become a regional conflict, jeopardizes the months-long effort by President Biden and his top aides to push Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel.
Even before the assault by Palestinian militants of Hamas on Israeli towns on Saturday morning, American officials, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, had warned that the complex diplomacy over normalization might not bear fruit. On Saturday, Mr. Blinken was at the White House making calls to foreign counterparts on the new conflict. He and other U.S. officials were focused on quelling the war, not on diplomacy over Saudi-Israel normalization.
Saudi Arabia has made significant demands of the United States, including a mutual defense treaty. But American and Arab officials from the region have said in private conversations in recent weeks that they thought the hardest part of the talks would be getting the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to grant enough concessions to the Palestinians to satisfy Saudi and American leaders.
With Israel now saying it was at war with Gaza, the prospect of such concessions looks even dimmer.
A statement on Saturday from Saudi Foreign Ministry emphasized the plight of the Palestinians, saying the kingdom had warned repeatedly “of the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the continued occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people and their legitimate rights and the repetition of systemic provocations against its sanctities.”
The ministry also called on countries to “activate a credible peace process that leads to the two-state solution.”
That Saudi perspective clashes directly with views expressed by top Israeli officials even before the new war. The outbreak of violence will no doubt create more distance between the governments.
Abdulaziz Alghashian, a Saudi researcher who studies his country’s policy toward Israel, said the escalation was a setback for officials who had been pushing for normalization. “It doesn’t look encouraging for the prospects of this mega deal,” he said.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, said in an interview with Fox News last month that “every day we get closer” on the potential for normalization with Israel, but also stressed that “for us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part.”
Polls have shown that the majority of Saudis oppose diplomatic relations with Israel, and sympathy for the Palestinian cause and enmity toward Israel remain high. A full-scale war is likely to bring those sentiments to the surface and stoke them further — creating a difficult situation for a Saudi government that, while authoritarian, still weighs public opinion.
The official Saudi Press Agency published two items about the news in Gaza on Saturday morning, both of them referring solely to the “martyrdom” of Palestinians in Israeli shelling. Even in the United Arab Emirates — a Gulf state that established relations with Israel in 2020 — a prominent political science professor wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that resistance to the Israeli occupation was a “legitimate right” and offered a prayer for victory for the “heroes of the resistance.”
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that supports Hamas and is a partner of Iran, said in a statement that the assault against Israel sends a message to countries seeking normalization with Israel that “the Palestinian cause is an everlasting one, alive until victory and liberation.”
Saudi Arabia has not recognized Israel since it was founded in 1948, and until recently its government had signaled that it would not consider normalizing relations until Israel agreed to allow the creation of a Palestinian state.
Douglas Schorzman contributed reporting from Seoul.