“If you and I, 10 years ago, were talking about normalization with Saudi Arabia,” Biden told Netanyahu, “I think we’d look at each other like, ‘Who’s been drinking what?’”
But the possibility of a formal diplomatic relations between the Jewish state and the influential Arab kingdom, whose monarch styles himself as the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam, now seems in reach. The Biden administration is working with both sides on a package of agreements and concessions that would make it possible, on the heels of what the previous Trump administration helped broker between Israel and a few Arab monarchies, including the United Arab Emirates.
Israel’s crisis exposes Washington’s delusion
A pact with Riyadh would be a far bigger coup for Netanyahu, who has long sought to position himself as his nation’s premier statesman. It would pave the way for other Arab and Muslim-majority nations to abandon their historic rejection of Israel since its 1948 founding in lands long inhabited by Palestinians.
“I think that under your leadership, Mr. President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Netanyahu told Biden. He said “such a peace would go a long way first to advance the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state and advance a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Israel and Saudi Arabia are not at war. The two governments have already established a significant depth in clandestine, informal ties, buttressed by a profusion of Israeli businessmen and officials jetting into Riyadh in recent years. Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is a known admirer of Israel’s tech sector and wants to sharpen security partnerships between the two countries in the face of their mutual antagonist, Iran. In a Fox News interview this week, he said “everyday we get closer” to a normalization agreement.
Mooted contours of a potential deal include U.S. security guarantees to Saudi Arabia — framed by some reports as akin to Washington’s existing alliances with Japan and South Korea — as well as enlisting Israeli support in the development of a uranium-enrichment program for Saudi Arabia’s fledgling nuclear industry. Floated in vaguer terms are apparent concessions to Palestinians, millions of whom live under Israeli military occupation, shorn of the same political rights as their neighbors.
In Israel and the U.S., ‘apartheid’ is the elephant in the room
It’s this last piece that has other Arab observers concerned. The current Abraham Accord agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates has seen a flourishing of bilateral trade and people-to-people contacts between the two countries, but it has done little to advance the plight of the Palestinians, whatever the rhetoric of “peace” that surrounded the forging of these deals. Some officials are more sanguine about this reality than others.
“Were the Abraham Accords envisioned to solve the Palestinian issue?” asked Anwar Gargash, a top UAE foreign policy official, speaking at a Manhattan event on Wednesday hosted by media outlets Al-Monitor and Semafor. He bluntly answered that they were not, adding that the Palestinians have been given a blank check for years from Arab partners, yet “haven’t done anything” with that support.
This year is on track to be the bloodiest for Palestinians in the West Bank in more than a decade. The far-right Israeli government caters to an increasingly violent, emboldened settler movement in the West Bank and boasts top members in its cabinet who explicitly reject the notion of a two-state solution — a vision of separate Israeli and Palestinian states existing side-by-side. Palestinian despair, as well as disaffection with the Palestinian Authority’s aging, corrupt and autocratic leadership, has stoked a new wave of militancy.
“Where is Israel going?” King Abdullah II of Jordan said, speaking at the same event of the country’s far-right drift. “Is it a one-state solution you want?”
Scanning the diplomatic landscape surrounding the Abraham Accords, the Jordanian monarch suggested there was “this belief that you can parachute over Palestine” and establish ties that prioritize a raft of other issues. “That cannot work,” he said.
The gloomy failure of the Oslo accords
Sayyid Badr Albusaidi, Oman’s foreign minister, concurred, suggesting that the core concern ought not to be “about focusing on normalization with Israel,” but “a bigger strategic picture” that leads to a resolution to the Palestinian issue and the success of the two-state solution.
The Biden administration is aware of these concerns, but is pressing ahead. It has repeatedly signaled its support for a two-state solution, but done little to curb the Netanyahu government’s frequent actions that undercut such a prospect.
Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, said the Biden administration did not come into office with a plan to impose on the Israelis and Palestinians and stated flatly that the prevailing political “conditions” for actual talks between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government “are completely nonexistent.” (The United States, to be sure, has a significant role in the evolution of these conditions.)
But, Leaf argued, a diplomatic opening between Israel and Saudi Arabia could be a transformative moment in regional politics. “The normalization piece is an opportunity we’ve picked up, and we think it could be a galvanizing point,” she said.
Leaf cautioned that the “road” to any future Saudi-Israel deal will “be long and winding,” but concludes that it had “strategic value” for both countries, as well as the United States.
In Washington, there is a concerted debate over the merits of that claim. Beyond the Palestinian question, analysts point to the merits of an enduring security alliance with Riyadh, at a time when China and other powers are also shouldering their way into the region.
“U.S. security guarantees for Riyadh would undoubtedly ensure that Saudi Arabia’s increasing flirtation with China never leads to a significant strategic foothold for Beijing in the kingdom, a line the Saudis have thus far carefully avoided crossing,” wrote Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute.
Gargash, the senior Emirati diplomat, whose government has deep relationships with Beijing and Moscow, in addition to the United States, cautioned against such thinking. “The fears that one relationship will replace another are extremely false,” he said.
And, perhaps for that reason, other experts think the best solution is to keep a human rights-abusing monarchy at arm’s length — not in a tight embrace.
“The Middle East does not represent a theater of core U.S. interests, and the expanding footprints of Russia and China in the region do not constitute a threat to American security or prosperity,” wrote Jon Hoffman of the libertarian Cato Institute. “Instead, if navigated correctly, the return of multipolarity to the Middle East could be a net benefit for the United States, providing Washington with an opportunity to distance itself from the region.”