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Bepi Pezzulli
International counsel & foreign policy adviser

Game theory: Diplomatic shifts in the Middle East

US President Joseph R. Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023 (Wikipedia Commons)

The conflict in the Middle East, long resembling a diplomatic chess match, has, since the outbreak of the war in Gaza in the aftermath of the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel of October 7, transformed into a high-stakes poker game. At the onset of this intricate maneuvering, each party has positioned itself for a tough give-and-take in pursuit of a new regional equilibrium.

As things stand, Israel has secured the green light for its final military operations in Rafah and an agreement in principle on a plan for the “day after.” US President Joseph R. Biden has triggered the succession process for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Defence Minister Yoav Gallant emerging as a potential Likud leader and war cabinet member Benjamin Gantz emerging as a prime minister-in-waiting. The Palestinian Authority may achieve Hamas’ elimination through indirect means and get a second political life. And Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aims at gaining significant results with minimal effort.

Gallant’s diplomacy: The key catalyst behind the US-Israel rapprochement

Groundbreaking reports by John Hudson on March 29, and by Adam Taylor on April 2 for The Washington Post reveal that the Biden Administration has recently greenlit a substantial arms transfer package to Israel, amounting to a staggering $18 billion. This comprehensive deal encompasses an arsenal of weaponry, including over 1,800 MK84 bombs, each weighing 900 kilograms, as well as 500 MK82 bombs with a weight of 230 kilograms. Furthermore, the US Department of State has granted authorization for the transfer of 25 F-35A fighter jets, each valued at $110 million. Remarkably, both the fighter jets and bombs had already received the necessary approval from the US Congress, thus circumventing the requirement for notification to Capitol Hill, where Israel faces opposition within the far left ranks of the Democratic Party. Hence, despite escalating tensions between Biden and Netanyahu, the White House has refrained from hindering the existing military supply agreements with Israel.

Following the US’ decision not to veto UN Security Council Resolution 2728, which called for a ceasefire in Gaza during Ramadan, Netanyahu had decided to cancel a planned government delegation’s visit to Washington DC. However, it’s notable that Netanyahu did not impede Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s visit to Washington, which preceded the authorization of the new arms shipments to Israel. Gallant’s visit proved pivotal, with the acceleration of warplane deliveries being a key agenda item. According to a press readout issued by Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, during his discussions with US National Security Adviser Jacob J. Sullivan and US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin, Gallant underscored the enduring security alliance between Israel and the USA, emphasizing the critical role of the conflict’s outcome in shaping global security dynamics. He highlighted the urgency of rescuing hostages and defeating Hamas as essential objectives. Final approval for the arms transfer, including the delivery of the mega-bombs, ostensibly occurred during Gallant’s visit to Washington.

According to a report by Barak Ravid on March 29 for Axios, it was during this visit that Gallant also proposed the idea of deploying a multinational force to stabilize Gaza. This proposal stems from Israel’s recognition of the pressing need to alleviate humanitarian crises in Gaza, exacerbated by the United Nations’ warning of an imminent famine. Israeli officials also believe that the presence of a multinational force could contribute to establishing an alternative governance structure in the enclave, beyond Hamas’ control. Axios suggests that this force would comprise three “friendly” Arab countries, potentially including Egypt and Jordan, along with a partner from the signatory countries to the Abraham Accords. These forces would remain in Gaza for a limited duration, tasked with securing the port currently under construction by the USA along the Gaza coast, and ensuring the safe passage of humanitarian aid convoys to the population, thereby mitigating the risk of interception or looting by Hamas.

Shortly thereafter, at a press conference held on April 2, Netanyahu announced that the Israeli military is making preparations to remove the approximately 1.5 million civilians who have sought refuge in Rafah after fleeing the attacks. Netanyahu emphasized the strategic importance of Rafah, stating, “There will be no victory without entering Rafah, and there will be no victory without eliminating Hamas battalions there.” Despite assertions to the contrary, Netanyahu clarified that the delay in the planned offensive was not influenced by pressure from the USA.

Netanyahu’s announcement followed discussions on April 1 between US officials, including Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, and their Israeli counterparts, National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi and Minister for Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer. These discussions focused on the details of an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah. In a subsequent statement, Israeli officials expressed a willingness “to consider American concerns regarding the operation and agreed to engage in further discussions with experts.”

The timing of Netanyahu’s announcement, following extensive talks with US officials, indicates a potential resolution to the longstanding disagreement between Biden and Netanyahu regarding the offensive in Rafah. Through determined efforts and discreet diplomacy, the Israeli government has managed to align the parties on a course of action to be agreed in an operational plan, albeit one that requires significant concessions from both sides.

Sullivan’s Saudi mission and MBS’ demands

Meanwhile, Sullivan’s journey to Riyadh underscores a significant diplomatic initiative by Washington, which aims to facilitate “the Saudi side of an Israel mega-deal.” As reported by American media outlets, Sullivan’s upcoming meeting with MBS is anticipated to mark the initiation of a stable path toward normalized relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, with the former signing the Abraham Accords.

According to insights by Axios, “amidst the ongoing conflict in Gaza and with only seven months remaining until the American presidential elections, White House officials concede that the prospects for a historic peace agreement are slim.” However, Sullivan’s trip underscores President Biden’s unwavering determination to showcase that he is capable to work towards a breakthrough during his electoral campaign.

MBS, however, has raised the stakes by outlining four key conditions.

First, Saudi Arabia is resolute in its quest to secure a military pact that obliges the USA to defend the kingdom in exchange for fostering relations with Israel. MBS has long vied for it. A US source cited by Reuters noted that this pact could resemble treaties Washington has with Asian states or, if congressional approval is unattainable, it could emulate the agreement the USA has with Bahrain, where the US Fifth Fleet is stationed. Notably, such an arrangement would not require congressional approval. Additionally, Washington could enhance the deal by designating Saudi Arabia as a Major Non-NATO Ally, a status already conferred upon Israel.

Second. Concurrently, Washington signals an intensification of efforts, particularly in expressing support for Saudi Arabia’s civilian nuclear program. Saudi Arabia is said to be prepared to sign Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act, commonly known as the “123 Agreement.”

Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954 serves as a crucial legal instrument governing civilian nuclear collaboration between the USA and other countries. This agreement delineates the terms and conditions under which nuclear materials, equipment, and technology can be transferred between the USA and partner nations for peaceful purposes, including energy generation, medical research, and industrial applications. Section 123 Agreements include provisions ensuring non-proliferation, safeguards, end-use assurances, and physical security. These agreements require Congressional approval, as they are essential for promoting international cooperation in nuclear energy while preventing the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities and also entail the commitment of partner countries to comply with international non-proliferation standards, including safeguards administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The potential inclusion of Saudi Arabia in the Abraham Accords is a significant diplomatic advancement. However, Riyadh’s pursuit of a civil nuclear program has long been a sticking point in the negotiations, particularly concerning Israel’s staunch stance against nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Israel’s position on nuclear proliferation is intricate. While it maintains ambiguity regarding its own nuclear capabilities, it adamantly opposes the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region. Israel advocates for a nuclear-free Middle East, viewing nuclear proliferation, especially by adversaries like Iran, as a severe threat to regional stability. Consequently, Israel has actively campaigned for international measures to prevent such proliferation. In addressing nuclear threats, Israel has resorted to preemptive military actions, exemplified by the bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. This underscores its unwavering commitment to safeguarding its security interests. Furthermore, Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity functions to bolster deterrence against potential adversaries while averting unnecessary provocation or escalation. In essence, Israel’s traditional stance on nuclear proliferation embodies a nuanced blend of opposition to nuclear weapon proliferation and concerns about regional stability. This position intersects with Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions, creating a complex dynamic within the broader geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. The pursuit of civil nuclear capabilities by Riyadh will be a high price for a normalization agreement.

Third. The normalization agreement will entail Washington expediting the supply of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Originally deployed by the US Army across seven batteries, THAAD had been approved for sale to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Following Pentagon approval and the subsequent activation of the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) process, Lockheed Martin secured a $946 million contract for the initial batch of THAAD ballistic missile defense systems for Saudi Arabia. This agreement was part of a procurement program for 11 batteries, which includes 44 launchers, 360 interceptor missiles, 16 fire control systems, mobile communication stations, and seven AN/TPY-2 radars, totaling approximately $15 billion. Saudi Arabia has shown interest in acquiring THAAD since 2016. The acquisition of THAAD, equipped with both endo and exo-atmospheric engagement capabilities, will notably bolster Saudi defense capabilities against the escalating ballistic missile threat in the region, especially from the Iran-backed Houthi militia. Recently, the US Army showcased THAAD’s versatility by demonstrating its capacity as a transport and launch platform for the Patriot PAC-3 MSE missile, underscoring the system’s adaptability and effectiveness.

While deliveries of the missile systems, however, were scheduled for the last quarter of 2026, MBS is now requesting immediate delivery.

Fourth. Diplomats and regional sources have revealed that MBS is pressing for certain assurances from Israel to demonstrate its continued support for the Palestinians and its commitment to preserving the possibility of a two-state solution. These commitments include Riyadh’s request to transfer some Area B territories under shared security control in the West Bank to the PA, and to limit the proliferation of new Jewish settlements in Area C. These demands, however, fall on the low expectations on the spectrum, especially when contrasted with Palestinian maximalism, which has long hindered efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Additionally, Riyadh has apparently pledged financial assistance to the PA.

In this context, the PA is playing its cards aptly, strategically navigating the situation to advance its objectives. Recently, Ramallah responded to increasing international pressure for reform by announcing the formation of a new Cabinet. Earlier this month, PA President Mahmoud Abbas appointed Mohammad Mustafa, a seasoned advisor, as prime minister, replacing Mohammed Shtayyeh. Shtayyeh and his government resigned in February, citing the “need for change amidst Israel’s aggressive actions in Gaza and escalating violence in the occupied West Bank.” Mustafa, an independent economist educated in the USA, has committed to establishing a technocratic government and creating an independent trust fund to aid in Gaza’s reconstruction. Moreover, Mustafa will also assume the role of foreign minister. The PA, which governs parts of the West Bank, is predominantly controlled by Abbas’s Fatah party. Fatah has historically had clashing relationships with Hamas, the governing body in Gaza, and the two factions engaged in a brutal conflict before Fatah was ousted from the Strip in 2007. Washington has advocated for a reinvigorated PA to possibly oversee Gaza after a transitional period entrusted to an Arab multinational force. However, the PA’s popularity in the West Bank has waned, in part due to its failure to hold elections in the past 16 years. The reset facilitated by the USA presents an opportunity for the PA to regain trust and credibility among Palestinians in the West Bank.

Biden’s dual strategy: Leveraging the Middle East conflict to contain China

For better or worse, Israel needs to make the most out of past missteps by the Biden Administration, leveraging the current threats to the USA’s international standing to its advantage. As highlighted by Reuters correspondents Samia Nakhoul, Dan Williams, and Matt Spetalnick, a potential agreement offering US military protection to Saudi Arabia in exchange for its normalization with Israel could have profound implications for the Middle East. Such a pact would not only bring together two historical adversaries but also solidify Riyadh’s alliance with Washington, particularly significant as China makes inroads in the region.

Last year’s announcement of normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran, brokered by Beijing was alarming. Biden’s strategic moves in the Middle East may, therefore, be driven in part by a broader geopolitical calculus aimed at countering China’s growing presence and influence.

It may be that Biden’s playing the all-in card in the Middle East is less about the Negev sands and more about the Great Wall.

About the Author
Giuseppe Levi Pezzulli ("Bepi") is a Solicitor specialised in International financial law and a foreign policy scholar. His research interest is economic statecraft. In 2018, he published "An alternative view of Brexit" (Milano Finanza Books), which investigates the economic and geopolitical implications of Brexit. In 2023, "Brave bucks" (Armando Publishing House), which highlights the role of private capital in the industrial policy mix. Formerly an Editor-in-Chief of La Voce Repubblicana; is a columnist for the Italian daily financial newspaper Milano Finanza; a pundit for the int'l financial TV channel CNBC; and a Middle East analyst for Longitude magazine. He received degrees at Luiss Guido Carli in Rome (LLB), New York University (LLM), and Columbia University (JD), and stood for a seat in the UK Parliament at the general election 2024.
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