Brian Huang

The Historical Precedent For an Agreement Between Israel, the Saudis and the US

Israeli flag flown in Jerusalem on September 5, 2020. Photographer: Taylor Brandon via Unsplash
Israeli flag flown in Jerusalem on September 5, 2020. Photographer: Taylor Brandon via Unsplash

Saudi Arabia has long eluded both the United States and Israel as potential signatories to the Abraham Accords. With news that Saudi Arabia has laid out to the US terms for normalizing relations with Israel, the US must quickly convince Saudi Arabia to negotiate away from the “hard lines” that they have recently laid out. The timing is right for the US to host a summit between the two countries to get both sides to come to the negotiating table. Such a summit should focus on decoupling Saudi Arabia’s insistence on making monumental progress on the Israel-Palestine issue, as assuming significant progress will be made in the near future would be detrimental due to the unfortunate unrealistic nature of such a request. Additionally, such demands such as uranium enrichment by the Saudis must be dropped, with this surely being an issue to Netanyahu as he looks to sell any deal to the Israeli public. With Netanyahu facing widespread protests, Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Clinton recently stated that, “Biden has leverage over Netanyahu to persuade him that nothing good can happen with Saudi Arabia if he allows the situation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to explode.” This, coupled with the Saudis facing a barrage of negative international news (including from their recent LIV Golf deal with the PGA), and an increasingly wary attitude towards Iran, American officials should pounce on this timing before the next presidential election, when the pendulum of political power in America could quickly swing. The US, despite President Biden’s disagreements with Saudi Arabia, has a vested interest in ensuring that the Middle East does not continue to gravitate towards China, as Saudi Arabia and Iran have recently done. As with many times in politics, American officials must accept the reality of the global situation, and make the hard choice of amending, albeit a rightfully uneasy, relationship with Saudi Arabia.

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History demonstrates that such an idea is not as ludicrous as some might imagine. The Egypt–Israel peace treaty signed in 1979, and the 1994 Treaty of Peace Between the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan have set the precedent for Saudi Arabia to fully restore relations with Israel, with the United States serving as a mediator. The Brookings Institute reported that “Clandestine cooperation between the Saudis and Israelis dates to the early 1960s, when both supported the Royalists in Yemen,” along with meetings as recent as July 2022, where Israeli and Saudi officials met to discuss mutual economic and defense issues. While a main obstacle to relations “is that Saudi’s King Salman is acutely aware that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative was conceived and proposed by his half-brother (and predecessor on the throne), then-Crown Prince Abdullah,” Saudi Arabia has seen an unofficial change in leadership with the rise of MBS.

Just as the emergence of Sadat changed the fortunes of the Egypt-Israeli relationship after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, MBS represents a tectonic shift in the political dealings of Saudi Arabia. While he holds many obviously negative distinctions such as playing a role in the murder of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi, MBS has represented a new era in being significantly more open to Israeli relations. This includes “indirectly acknowledging the existence of Israel” and “when asked, whether the Jews had a right to their land, he affirmed that both the Palestinians and Israelis had a right to their land,” something that would have been unfathomable to hear from his father (Siddiqa, 2019, 7). Elie Podeh, a lecturer at Hebrew University, comments that Saudi Arabia is also realizing that a perpetual stalemate with Israel is unrealistic, stating “Mutual Saudi-Israeli interests originally stemmed from a realist axiom of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ Yet, new paths of cooperation were forged, and new mutual interests explored. Over time, the two countries realized that they did not, in fact, pose a threat to either’s existence.” 

As time has worn on, Saudi Arabia has come to accept that Palestinians will not miraculously be able to take Israeli land overnight. Podeh notes that the “Even their [Saudi] attitude toward the Palestinians — rhetoric aside — is not substantially dissimilar, and while the irresolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a source of regional instability, Israel’s existence contributes, in Saudi eyes, to the system’s equilibrium. The upheavals in the Arab world since 2011 known as “the Arab Spring” have further reinforced the Saudi conviction.” Israeli politicians have also realized, following the 2006 Lebanon war, that Israel and Saudi Arabia are alike in wanting to counter Iran, Islamic extremism and Hezbollah. This has only continued to remain true as Iran’s nuclear program has strengthened.

Further, the Jordan-Israel treaty signed in 1997 also demonstrates why a potential deal between the Saudis and Israelis, brokered by the United States, is not far-fetched. Saudi Arabia is already working, albeit in secret, with Israel on a host of other issues. They have chosen to ignore their self imposed red line of finding a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, seemingly resigned to the fact that they must be realistic with their expectations. This mimics The Madrid Conference, where the Jordanian delegation realized they had to decouple the issue of relations with Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This shows that the Arab states were aware, even decades ago, that real progress can be made on one front without linking it to the fate of another. Analysts note that “Saudi Arabia and Israel base their regional security strategies on the U.S. willingness and ability to project strategic leadership across the region, and more importantly when the United States is unwilling or unable to do so” (Carter, 2021, 46). Specifically, the threat of Iran will not disappear overnight, requiring buy-in and mutual trust from all three countries to truly fight the threat that they care most about. 

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Three decades later, Israel continues to be a vibrant country, as one of the tech centers of the world, and an obvious major player in the Middle East. It is impractical, as other Arab countries have recognized, to simply keep ignoring Israel, or to expect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to resolve itself quickly. The only alternative for Saudi Arabia is to decouple the issue with establishing normal diplomatic ties, as Egypt and Jordan have set precedent for in the past. Rob Malley, the lead negotiator on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, remarked that MBS is the right leader to finally bring Israel and Saudi Arabia together, as he “comes from a generation of Saudi leaders that doesn’t have a visceral, emotional attachment to the Palestinian cause.’ Malley further commented that MBS considered the Palestinian issue of self-determination ‘an annoying irritant—a problem to be overcome rather than a conflict to be fairly solved.’” As many Arab countries have already found out, Saudi Arabia and Israel have much more in common than what divides them. As Saudi Arabia looks towards continuing their integration into the Western world, a trilateral summit between them, the US and Israel to sign onto the Abraham Accords represents the next natural step. They would continue to follow into the footsteps of the many of their counterparts, including Egypt and Jordan decades ago, and the Abraham Accord signatories two years ago. 

Note: All views expressed in this op-ed are reflective of the personal opinions of the author, and do not reflect the views of any organization he is affiliated with.

About the Author
Brian graduated Cum Laude with a MA in Government, with a specialization in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security at Reichman University in Herzliya. He previously served as an Anna Sobol Levy Foundation Fellow, which brings Americans who are interested in government work to study in Israel. He received his BA in Political Science at Union College in New York. Having grown up as a Taiwanese-American, he is passionate about military issues that bring together Asia, the United States, and Israel.
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