Yehuda Lukacs
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Biden and the Mirage of Israeli-Saudi Peace

To what extent was the Biden administration partially responsible for the events leading up to the attack by Hamas on October 7?

Before the war, the administration was busy trying to hammer out an unprecedented Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement while downplaying the Palestinian question.

Biden’s efforts to conclude a landmark Israeli-Saudi peace deal were intended to build upon the Abraham Accords signed in Washington on September 15, 2020, sponsored by the Trump administration. The accords normalized diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Israel. Sudan also joined the accords and Morocco normalized relations with Israel on later dates.

Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), sought a hard bargain from the US in exchange for the proposed deal with Israel. He realized that the road to Washington must entail a detour via Jerusalem. Riyadh cleverly demanded a mutual defense treaty with Washington as well as a green light for an ambitious civilian nuclear program, including the enrichment of Uranium on Saudi soil.

Although lip service was paid by the Saudis to the Palestinian issue, establishing a two-state solution was not a deal breaker before October 7.

Saudi reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Iran, orchestrated by China in March 2023, raised alarm bells in the White House. Given the animosity between Washington, Tehran, and Beijing, a trilateral Israeli/Saudi/American treaty would counter Iran’s regional ambitions and check China’s growing influence in the Middle East. Moreover, it was hoped that such a spectacular foreign policy breakthrough would pay off domestically by elevating Biden’s sunken popularity before the elections.

Ultimately, are those formidable concessions, especially committing its military to defend an unpredictable Saudi royal autocracy congruent with America’s vital national interests? Further, should the US sanction nuclear proliferation in the world’s most volatile region? Certainly not, on both counts.

The Trump and Biden administrations were greatly seduced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision of the pathway to peace with the Arab world.

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2023, Netanyahu declared: “I’ve long sought to make peace with the Palestinians. But I also believe that we must not give the Palestinians a veto over new peace treaties with Arab states,” further, he continued “the Palestinians could greatly benefit from a broader peace. They should be part of that process, but they should not have a veto over it.”

The Saudi position on peace with Israel was formally established by the resolutions of the 2002 Arab League summit in Lebanon. It called for a complete Israeli withdrawal from all the territories it occupied in the 1967 war and for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel, however, rejected it as a basis for negotiations.

Once the White House approached Riyadh about a possible deal with Israel, the 2002 plan was sidelined. MBS dismissed the centrality of the Palestinian issue in any future deal just as envisioned by Netanyahu during his United Nations speech.

Unquestionably, the Biden administration bought into this half-baked scheme. Publicly, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said “normalization [with Israel] cannot come at the expense of the Palestinian cause.” Such a statement, however, was issued for public consumption only. It had no real policy relevance. There was no way that Netanyahu’s Israel would make any meaningful concessions to the Palestinians. The administration was fully aware of that, yet it simply went along with the proposed treaty while disregarding its potentially dire consequences.

This cynical triple deal was meant to satisfy each player’s interests; MBS, a ruthless dictator, exploited Washington’s anxiety about China and demanded a formal alliance; Biden aspired to reestablish a ‘pax Americana’ in the Middle East; and Netanyahu planned to celebrate the ‘deal of the century’  by making peace with the most prominent Arab state. This misconceived diplomatic ménage à trois, burst apart on October 7.

Hamas’ leaders were fully aware that once an Israel-Saudi agreement was inked, Netanyahu’s goal to crush the Palestinians’ aspirations for an independent state would be realized with MBS’ blessing.

The attack by Hamas was partially an attempt to derail the Israeli-Saudi deal and it succeeded in aborting it, at least for now. Documents seized by the IDF in Gaza clearly show that sabotaging the normalization deal was one of Hamas’ primary goals when planning the invasion.

President Biden acknowledged this: “One of the reasons Hamas moved on Israel … they knew that I was about to sit down with the Saudis,” “Guess what? The Saudis wanted to recognize Israel.”

Still, Biden’s misguided diplomatic adventure, peddled by Netanyahu and cajoled by MBS, is partially responsible for the October 7 tragedy. This initiative has exposed America’s gullibility and ineptitude to pursue a coherent and adroit policy.

Having realized its colossal mistake, the administration is finally paddling back and expressing full support for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel tethered to a Saudi normalization deal.

Riyadh has also changed its tune because of the war. The foreign ministry recently announced that unless an independent Palestinian state is established on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, it will not sign an agreement with Israel.

How close are we to realizing a Palestinian state alongside Israel? Given the ideological disposition of Netanyahu’s coalition, the deep-seated mutual hatred between the two peoples, and the severe trauma in Israel and Gaza, peace is nothing short of a pipe dream in the foreseeable future.

About the Author
Yehuda Lukacs, born in Budapest, received his Ph.D. in International Relations from American University's School of International Service. He is Assoc. Professor Emeritus of Global Affairs at George Mason University. In addition to George Mason, he taught at American University, University of Maryland, Corcoran College of Art and Design, University College Cork (Ireland), Eötvös Loránd University-ELTE (Budapest); and as Lady Davis Doctoral Fellow at Hebrew University's Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace (Jerusalem). His books include Israel, Jordan and the Peace Process (Syracuse Uni. Press); The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Documentary Record (Cambridge Uni. Press); Documents on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Cambridge Uni. Press); The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Two Decades of Change with Abdallah Battah (Westview Press). He is the Executive Producer of the documentary film Migration Studies filmed in Hungary and Serbia in 2017:
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