When US President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin assembled on the White House lawn in 1978, they were barely half a decade removed from the Yom Kippur War, a devastating conflict that claimed thousands of lives on both Israeli and Arab sides. By that point, Israel, just thirty years old, had already fought five wars with Egypt. From the American perspective, Egypt was also a client state of its chief international rival: a massive contingent of Soviet troops and advisors were once stationed there, and the last war had nearly gone nuclear between the superpowers. To help change all of that – to end the bloodshed between Israel and Egypt, to stabilize the region, and to pull Cairo out of the USSR’s orbit – Carter committed the US to historic concessions, and today Egypt remains one of the top recipients of American aid.
Now, 45 years later, there is talk of a meeting between President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at the upcoming G20 summit, while rumors swirl about major US concessions to Saudi Arabia in order to induce “peace” between Riyadh and Israel. Earlier in August, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Saudis had agreed to a general outline of incentives to guide an agreement with Israel: support for the kingdom’s civilian nuclear energy program, security guarantees, and some nebulous form of progress with the Palestinians. These principles had already begun to take shape in reporting over the recent months as senior Biden administration officials shuttled through Saudi Arabia, meeting with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and other leaders.
President Carter gave away a lot in order to seal the deal between Israel and Egypt. The problem with Joe Biden doing the same as his predecessor is that none of the dynamics that made Egypt-Israel peacemaking a life-or-death imperative nearly half a century ago are present in Israel-Saudi relations. There is no costly war between Israel and Saudi Arabia, no matter the deceptive framing in some quarters of the need for a “peace deal.” On the contrary, the two countries already share back-channel ties across a number of fields, including security and technology, while Israeli officials and businesspeople make informal visits to the kingdom.
Finally, while the Biden administration is rightly perturbed by China-Saudi Arabia business deals and investments, the relationship between Beijing and Riyadh is not the same as the far-reaching ties between Egypt and the Soviets at the height of the Cold War. It’s also not clear that the Saudis would be able to get from China what they want from the US, which mainly has to do with security, or that they would halt their engagement with the Chinese if Washington were to fulfill MBS’s wishlist.
Now, just because the Israel-Saudi situation in 2023 is not the same as the interplay between Israel and Egypt in 1978 does not mean that normalization is not worthwhile. Given Saudi Arabia’s leading role in the Arab and Muslim worlds, normalization would yield major changes to Israel’s position in the Middle East and possibly pave the way to further openings with other countries, though it would do little to reduce tensions in Israel’s most dangerous relationship—its conflict with Iran. However, because Saudi Arabia and Israel share common interests across a range of areas, steps along the road toward normalization are already underway, with increasing informal business exchanges and the opening of overflight rights for Israeli airlines in the last year. The United States should support this process, but the price it is willing to pay to speed it along should be consistent with the urgency—or lack thereof—that characterizes Israel-Saudi relations.
The United States also needs to consider what it will get from the parties. The Biden administration wants to see progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. This is especially critical because, in theory, the tantalizing prospect of normalizing with Saudi Arabia is one of the most potent points of diplomatic leverage to move Israel toward some form of accommodation with the Palestinians. There are asks the United States could put forward that would yield tangible benefits short of the ever-distant final status agreement. Israeli transfer of some parts of West Bank Area C – currently under full Israeli control – to Palestinian Authority jurisdiction. However, Prime Minister Binyamin’s coalition is populated by extremists like Bezalel Smotrich who are hellbent on provoking the PA’s collapse, opposing even the most anodyne measures aimed at keeping the Palestinian government operating in the West Bank. Absent the breakup of the current Israeli government, even modest, interim steps to benefit the Palestinians seem unlikely.
Under the circumstances, Saudi Arabia might ask for a broad pledge against annexation, as the United Arab Emirates did in the context of the Abraham Accords back in 2020. That commitment was supposed to extend four years. Since then, Israel elected its most right-wing government ever and has set about pursuing de facto annexation through the legalization of existing West Bank outposts and the announcement of new settlements. Therefore, stronger measures are needed. Without them, it may not even be worthwhile for the United States to consider far-reaching tradeoffs to Saudi Arabia.
Concessions from a world power sometimes provide the necessary glue to bring together mistrustful erstwhile adversaries. Still, if all President Biden gets from the Saudis and Israelis is vagaries on the Palestinian conflict, he may end up giving away a lot in exchange for very little from two countries that were on the road to normalization anyway, all while raising the price other nations can ask of the US to shepherd along their ties with the Jewish state. In fact, Saudi Arabia probably feels emboldened to ask so much of the United States because the UAE, another country that lacked formal ties with Israel but was not at war with it, received unprecedented kickbacks from the Trump administration. Striking a Saudi-Israel agreement would be a historic achievement for President Biden. But that agreement, whether it comes in five months or five years, has been inevitable for some time now, and the United States does not need to not pay a high price for the sake of instant gratification.
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