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Leon Hadar

Get Ready for the Saudi-Israeli Normalization Deal

When it comes to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy consider the following general rule-of-the-thumb: American presidents do not unveil diplomatic initiatives relating to issues of war and peace — launching a major military operation or signing an important international deal — unless they are confident that they have the necessary support of the key players at home and abroad.

To put it differently, they jump into the cold water only if they are sure that they will be able to get out safely and then hear the cheers from the public that is watching.

From that perspective, it’s time to stop wondering if Saudi Arabia and Israel would normalize their relations, but try to figure out when that is going to happen.

It’s true that the American-led deal to make peace between the most influential Arab country and the Jewish State is not yet signed, sealed and ready for delivery. But with an American president that is willing to invest his power and prestige in advancing this initiative there is more than fifty percent chance that he would get it done.

State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters on Tuesday that while the U.S. hasn’t reached a formal framework for an agreement, there was now a “broad understanding” of the possible elements of a deal involving Saudi Arabia and Israel. “There is still lots of work to do, and we’re continuing to work that process,” he said.

His comments came a week after two senior aides to President Biden, Brett McGurk, the White House Middle East czar, and Amos Hochstein, the president’s senior adviser for energy and infrastructure, quietly visited Saudi Arabia, according to Axios, suggesting that the talks for a deal gained momentum last month following President Biden’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Reflecting this diplomatic momentum Netanyahu told the United Nations General Assembly during his visit to New York that Israel and Saudi Arabia were on “at the cusp” of deal which would be “a quantum leap.”

At the same time, Muhammad Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and the country’s de facto ruler told Fox News that “every day gets closer [to a deal]. The Crown Prince AKA MBS acknowledge that such a deal seemed “for the first time real,” adding that the pact would be “the biggest historical deal since the Cold War.”

He may be right, and it is therefore quite astonishing that while we hear the knocks on the proverbial door of history, some Israeli politicians and pundits sound as though they hope that the deal would be derailed so as to deny Netanyahu, their political adversary, a diplomatic victory that would supposedly strengthen his position and allow him to contain the public opposition to his plan for judicial reform.

In that context, in what amounts to a form of wishful thinking, liberal Israelis who are leading the protests against “Bibi” and his right-wing government, and American-Jewish allies like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman are pressing President Biden to lean on Netanyahu and to link any push for a Saudi-Israeli deal to an agreement by the Israeli Prime Minister to abandon his radical plans to weaken the power of the judiciary as well as to make some major concessions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

But then these center-left Israelis and liberal American-Jews need to recognize that President Biden has concluded that a deal with Saudi Arabia — that would include a new strategic alliance between the Kingdom — would advance core U.S. national interests as well as his own political ones and sees his diplomatic initiative a part of strategy to refocus on the Middle East and reassert the US role in the region.

In the aftermath of the costly military interventions in the Middle East and US decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the conventional wisdom has been that Washington may commence a process of gradual disengagement from the region.

Such an approach seemed to have made sense against the backdrop of the stated commitment by US officials to pivot American policy to the Indo-Pacific region as part of a response to China’s military and economic surge.

If anything, the US-led effort to mobilize its Western allies to counter Russia aggression in Ukraine only raised more questions about the cost-effectiveness of an American interventionist strategy in the Middle East and its alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel.

But then considering its geo-strategic location and huge energy resources the US is now recognizing that ignoring the Middle East could prove to be risky, by creating a vacuum that rivals, like Iran, and competitors, like China and Russia, would be interested in filling, posing a threat to core American interests.

Indeed, after failing to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, aka Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was revoked by former President Donald Trump, the Biden Administration is worried that the Islamic Republic is intent on acquiring nuclear military capability while continuing to pursue policies that destabilize the Middle East.

At the same time, with the Saudis responding to the earlier diplomatic cold shoulder from the Biden Administration – recall Biden’s threat to treat the Saudis as “the pariah they are” — by expanding ties with China and Russia, the Americans are now trying to reaffirm relations with the Kingdom that plays a critical role in stabilizing the global energy markets and is like Israel, worried about an Iran going nuclear.

The agreement between the Saudis and the Israelis would be an outgrowth of the 2020 Abraham Accord under which Israel normalized relations with several other Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

A peace agreement between a leading Islamic power, joined by other Arab countries, and the Jewish State, that would also involve a security agreement between Washington and Riyadh, could help contain Iran and reinforce American pledge to strengthen the alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel.

It could also amount to a geo-strategic game changer, creating a pro-American Middle Eastern military and economic bloc powered by the energy resources of the Persian Gulf and Israel’s high-tech industries and scientific centres. That would be the most effective way to respond to the aggression of Iran and its regional satellites.

Does anyone seriously believe that an American president would reconsider his commitment to such an initiative in order to respond to the concerns of the Israel’s opposition or for that matter to force Netanyahu to make new concessions to the Palestinians, especially when it has become clear that MBS, the leader of the Arab bloc, is not going to threaten a security deal with Washington in order to placate an intransigent and weak Palestinian leadership?

The bottom line is that consideration of U.S. security interests outweigh the anxieties over the domestic political problems, even those of a close U.S. ally.

Israelis and Americans involved in the process have legitimate concerns over one element of the deal with the Saudis, the possibility of American sponsorship of a Saudi civilian nuclear-energy program, which would include a uranium-enrichment facility, the notion being that that could encourage a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

But the uranium-enrichment facility would be civilian in nature and run by Americans on Saudi soil, according to the Wall Street Journal. And let’s face the geo-political reality. If the Americans would not help the Saudis build and run this uranium-enrichment facility, the Chinese would be delighted to do that. Indeed, Realpolitik bites — but Israel’s Yair Lapid who has raised the issue should ask himself whether Israel would be better off under such a Chinese scenario.

While the political balance of power makes it unlikely that Netanyahu would place his judicial reform plan in the deep freezer, he could still face some American and Saudi pressure to take minor steps on the Palestinian front, like ceasing to build new settlements in guaranteeing greater Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank.

If “Bibi” accepts even some of these demands, he will probably lose the support of the radical right-wing members of his coalition, and would have to rely on the support of the center-left parties and as part of a deal with them place the judicial reform plan on the backburner.

But even that does not happen, a normalization agreement with the Saudis should be welcomed by all mainstream Israelis, and should not be seen by them as marking the end of the protests against the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. They should continue to protest as though there isn’t peace with Saudi Arabia, and support the deal as though there are not no protests.

About the Author
Leon Hadar is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Middle East Program. Dr. Leon Hadar served as Washington correspondent for The Business Times of Singapore and as the New York and United Nations bureau chief of The Jerusalem Post and The London Jewish Chronicle. He is a contributing editor with The National Interest and The American Conservative, having contributed regularly to The Spectator, and is a columnist and blogger for Haaretz (Israel). He holds three Master’s degrees, one in political science and communication from Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and two from the School of International and Public Affairs and the School of Journalism (where he was the recipient of the Henry N. Taylor Award) at Columbia University where he also received a certificate from the Middle East Institute. He received his Ph.D. in international relations from the American University, Washington DC. He has taught international relations, Middle East politics, and communication at the American University and the University of Maryland, College Park, and was the director of international studies at Mount Vernon College in Washington.
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