The current negotiations between the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel on an agreement that will include mutual recognition and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia present a historic and rare opportunity for creative diplomacy. An agreement, if achieved, would not only be a momentous win for all involved; it could reshape the Middle East for years to come. The US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinians, and the Middle East region as a whole would significantly benefit from such an agreement. It would also be a significant personal political achievement for the leaders involved: President Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhamad Bin Salman.
The benefits of such an agreement are clear: For the US, it would mean restoring its leadership role as the dominant power in the Middle East, containing the Chinese attempt to strengthen its presence in the region, and weakening Iran.
For Saudi Arabia, it may enable a possible defense agreement with the US, the supply of sophisticated American weapons, and some agreement on a future supply of civilian nuclear technology, hopefully under a strong American supervision and inspection regime.
For Israel, it would provide a peace agreement with the most important Muslim country. This would be an important step towards a solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It would further provide substantial economic gains and progress toward solving the conflict with the Palestinians. Ironically, Israel’s concessions to the Palestinians are inextricably linked to the preservation of Israel’s democracy that is now struggling against an assault by internal extremists inside and outside the government.
For the Palestinians, after years of stalling, significant progress would be made towards the goal of establishing an independent state and, in the interim, more control of their destiny and less friction with the Israeli army and Jewish settlers.
An agreement may lower the Palestinians’ motivation for terrorism against Israelis and keep alive the hope for a two-state solution (Israel and Palestine) which is approaching imminent death. It may also put an end to the “psychology of the last atrocity,” a phrase the Irish coined during the conflict in Northern Ireland, which meant a vicious cycle of terror and reprisal.
Personally, the leaders involved have much to gain. President Biden would score a significant foreign policy win that reflects his audacity and foreign policy experience, before the upcoming presidential elections, with a highly publicized ceremony in Washington, D.C. The agreement may also help lower the price of oil as part of the agreement with Saudi Arabia. This would have a dramatic positive effect on inflation and the US economy. It would also decrease Russian oil revenues currently financing the war in Ukraine.
Netanyahu would salvage his place in history and be remembered as a peacemaker rather than for his legal issues and the damage caused to Israeli democracy and society. The agreement would probably drive out the extreme parties in his coalition and be an opportunity for opposition parties to replace them, providing Netanyahu with the majority needed for the agreement’s approval in the Knesset.
The opposition parties may agree to join Netanyahu’s government for a limited time, for this purpose only, and with an agreed date for new elections or his departure from politics. It would also allow Netanyahu to abandon his judicial coup plan that will weaken Israel’s judiciary and that has already had a devastating impact on its social fabric. This should also be an American demand to Netanyahu before any agreement is finalized. In this way, Israeli democracy would be preserved intact, and Netanyahu would get a chance for a graceful departure from politics. Finally, Crown Prince Bin Salman would establish himself as a strong regional leader, and he may be exonerated for past misdeeds.
There is, however, a substantial risk involved if this rare opportunity fails to include significant, tangible progress toward Palestinian statehood and a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The current weakness of the Palestinian Authority may tempt the US and Saudi Arabia to ignore the Palestinians’ interests and aspirations for independence. Progress toward a solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is also of great importance to Israel’s future. The agreement must include steps toward the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict along the terms already agreed upon by Prime Minister Netanyahu in his negotiations with former Secretary of State John Kerry nine years ago in Rome.
These steps may include: a total freeze on the construction of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank and abolishing all illegal settlements; transfer of the Arab neighborhoods around Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority as well as areas in “zone C” which are now under full Israeli control. An additional step may include the reopening of the Palestinian mission in Washington that was closed in 2018.
As part of this agreement, which would strengthen the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians should take strong measures against terrorism in and from the West Bank, put an end to incitement against Israel in their official media, and stop actions against Israel in international forums.
However, a mere Israeli declaration of a freeze on the construction of new settlements and a commitment not to annex the West Bank would not be sufficient and may even have long-term very negative consequences. A deal that makes few concessions to the Palestinians and thereby leaves the ruling coalition intact would also be a severe blow to the pro-democracy movement in Israel and their heroic struggle to preserve the democratic nature of the State of Israel.
This is a rare and critical window of opportunity for another reason. There will probably not be in the near future an Israeli leader, on the right of the political spectrum, as strong politically as Netanyahu who is able, if interested, to make significant concessions toward a solution of the conflict with the Palestinians. On the Palestinian side, when Mahmoud Abbas retires from office, his successor may take years to establish himself and be capable of making any concessions.
At a certain point in the negotiations, it would be prudent to involve the Palestinians more actively so that in return for Israel’s concessions in the West Bank, they will commit to specific concessions.
This is indeed an historic opportunity not to be missed and the agreement could be achieved if it includes some progress toward creating a Palestinian State alongside Israel. At the ceremony in Washington, DC, Abbas should stand alongside President Biden, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Crown Prince Bin Salman. We are faced now with the question: Will the leaders have the vision and the audacity to take the necessary political risks?