U.S. and Israeli media have been abuzz for some time now with reports of meaningful diplomatic engagement on the issue of a U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi normalization deal that includes a meaningful Palestinian component. In the past week alone, top U.S. and Palestinian officials visited Riyadh, Tony Blinken phoned Bibi Netanyahu and Abu Mazen, and Saudi Arabia offered to resume funding the PA—all apparently tied to the goal of advancing normalization. The burgeoning Israel-Saudi diplomatic track has emerged as a rare bright spot in a moment when existential threats to Israel’s long-term security, democracy, and status on the world stage abound, largely thanks to the sixth Netanyahu government’s twin assaults on Israel’s political system and the viability of a future two-state outcome. If done right, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. putting a normalization deal on the table—specifically one that requires meaningful and significant Israeli steps toward two states—could very well be a silver bullet that revives the moribund peace process, averts the threats to Israel’s democracy by driving Netanyahu and the far-right apart, and sets Israel’s relations with the U.S., the West, the Palestinians, and the wider Arab world back on track.

President Biden speaks on the phone with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office, February 2022

There are, of course, a handful of complex issues to resolve before the U.S. and Saudi Arabia can present Israel with a normalization deal, such as defining the contours of Washington’s security guarantees for Riyadh, garnering the 67 Senate votes likely required to approve them, and establishing what will be asked of Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Assuming the Biden administration manages to work out all of these kinks, the last hurdle to cross could very well be one of the most formidable: Israeli domestic politics. Netanyahu would like nothing more than to be the prime minister who breaks the glass ceiling that has held Israel back from wider acceptance in the Arab and Muslim world. Many have suggested that when presented with such an opportunity, he could opt to ditch his far-right allies in favor of a unity government in the current Knesset with centrist leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz. But even when presented with an opportunity to achieve Saudi normalization, kill the judicial overhaul, and reverse the slide into an Israeli-Palestinian one-state reality, Gantz and Lapid likely won’t be as quick to hold their noses and jump into bed with Bibi as many apparently expect. Both leaders may conclude that the State of Israel and their long-term political prospects are not served by throwing Netanyahu a lifeline. Even if the stars align on all other aspects of Israel-Saudi normalization, the existence of an empowered Israeli partner to accept a deal is all but assured.

Events of the not-too-distant past presumably loom large for Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz. In March 2020, the two sat together at the helm of the Kahol Lavan party in the wake of Israel’s third round of elections in less than a year. As the world grappled with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gantz made the fateful decision to form an emergency unity government with Netanyahu to address the unprecedented crisis. This choice essentially negated the raison d’être and core promise of his campaign, which centered around replacing Netanyahu as prime minister. Not only did Netanyahu cause the government to collapse nine months later to avoid honoring a prime ministerial rotation agreement with Gantz, the decision to join with Netanyahu took a serious toll on Gantz’s popularity (he won a mere eight seats in the next elections) and cost him his position as the leader of the anti-Netanyahu bloc. Gantz’s blunder cleared the way for Lapid to become the architect of the government of change with Naftali Bennett and eventually assume the premiership. The lesson of this affair is one that millions of Israelis had long internalized: Netanyahu cannot be trusted even when he appeals to the need for national unity and to serve the greater good. Voters in the political camp opposed to Netanyahu do not want to see their politicians lend him political support. Gantz has only now managed to rebuild his popularity by positioning himself as a moderate, principled voice willing to achieve compromise in theory, but not at the cost of throwing Netanyahu a lifeline.

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid at a Kahol Lavan party rally, September 2019

With this background in mind, political dynamics over the course of the government’s eight months in power cast further doubt on Lapid and Gantz’s amenability to ever joining a government with Netanyahu as prime minister, even to facilitate Israel-Saudi normalization. Gantz and Lapid gave tepid collaboration with Netanyahu a shot this year when they joined judicial compromise talks hosted by President Herzog in March. At the time, partaking in these negotiations with Netanyahu was a reasonable and calculated political gamble. While the overhaul remained frozen, the talks allowed both leaders to demonstrate a willingness to speak to the other side without incurring much risk. But it did create a palpable divergence between Gantz and Lapid and the protest movement, which largely saw the talks as little more than a distraction and an effort by Netanyahu to buy time and take the wind out of the protests. In June, Netanyahu’s last-minute maneuvering around appointing members of the judicial selection committee—Yariv Levin’s unwillingness to convene the committee in the first place—prompted Lapid and Gantz to withdraw from the talks. The overhaul resumed, and the whole affair ultimately validated the protest movement’s aversion to engaging with Netanyahu in the first place.

When President Herzog announced this week that he was still carrying out indirect judicial overhaul negotiations, both protest leaders and Benny Gantz —whose moderate, right-leaning National Unity Party is widely perceived as more open to compromise than Lapid’s Yesh Atid—effectively disavowed the possibility of reaching a compromise the government at this stage. The discourse surrounding these rumored indirect talks underscores opposition politicians’ heightened misgivings about being seen as cooperating with the prime minister. Gantz seems to have internalized that providing Netanyahu with the offramp from the judicial overhaul he reportedly craves could very well result in him being trampled again. Given Israel’s domestic political circumstances, counting on a redo of March 2020 to achieve Israel-Saudi normalization is a dubious strategy.

Israelis protesting the judicial overhaul in Haifa, July 24, 2023

Netanyahu is far from the most extreme figure in his government. Unlike many in his cabinet (and many within his own party), his aspirations lie in Riyadh, Jakarta, and Islamabad more so than in Homesh, Hebron, and Har Bracha. Nonetheless, working with him carries tremendous ethical, political, and ideological baggage for politicians on the center or left of the political spectrum. He remains a prime minister with three criminal indictments whose refusal to step aside launched the country into a series of five elections in less than three years. He embraced a judicial reform platform that shielded him from recusal due to legal incapacitation and could very well impact his ongoing trial. He made a political pact with far-right political elements previously seen as too extreme to even enter the Knesset, and then normalized and empowered them likely knowing full well how it would impact Israel’s security, economy, and diplomatic relations. Netanyahu’s foremost priority is self-preservation. Throwing him a political lifeline and delivering him a historic diplomatic victory after the events of the past few years would be a questionable strategic choice. By doing so, Gantz and Lapid would risk ceding their status as leaders liberal-democratic camp by the time the next elections come around.

Finally, it is important to consider alternative scenarios. Prime Minister Netanyahu asks Lapid and Gantz to join forces with him so that he can implement an Israel-Saudi normalization deal. They decline, leaving Netanyahu with two options: maintaining his current far-right coalition as long as possible and declining the normalization deal, or calling a new round of elections in the hopes that he could form a new coalition that would be more amenable. The former would certainly be a safer short-term choice, but the political pressure on Netanyahu to call new elections from the Israeli public would be tremendous, even among right-leaning voters. Alternatively, Gantz and Lapid could theoretically try to pull more moderate Likud MKs away to form an alternative coalition without Netanyahu in the same Knesset. 

It is impossible to predict how the political jockeying would play out if Israel faces an opportunity to normalize ties with Saudi Arabia in exchange for implementing steps that advance Palestinian sovereignty. But what is clear is that Gantz, Lapid, and others in the opposition have a handful of possibilities to consider and plenty of disincentives to working with Netanyahu. It is all but certain that Israel’s current government will not be the one to herald in a new era of Israel-Saudi relations. But even if Riyadh and Washington play their cards right, there may be a long and tortuous path ahead before Jerusalem is prepared to embrace a new Middle East.