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Is a US-Saudi-Israel deal really in the works?

Biden is trying to make it appear that a normalization deal will happen if the Jewish state pays for it in concessions to the Palestinians. Netanyahu should see it as a trap, not a favor.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, June 7, 2023. Source: Twitter.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, June 7, 2023. Source: Twitter.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

According to New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, President Joe Biden is trying to do Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a big favor. That would involve the administration finally moving to follow up on former President Donald Trump’s Abraham Accords triumph and brokering a deal normalizing relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh.

Lending some weight to Friedman’s speculation is the fact that Biden has himself signaled his interest in some sort of pact with the Saudis that would involve Israel. This would give Biden a rare foreign-policy triumph in the midst of his re-election campaign. At the same time, since achieving that upgrade from under-the-table ties to the exchange of ambassadors is a major Israeli objective, it would also be a victory for Netanyahu, who is currently under siege from both Biden and domestic opponents who are falsely labeling his push for judicial reform as an assault on democracy.

Even a far more sober and insightful commentator such as the historian Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, thinks that it’s entirely possible that such a scenario might actually come to pass.

But pulling it off will require some doing. And that’s why, in spite of the clear signs that the administration is acting as if it is working towards this goal, I remain skeptical about the whole thing. There are too many reasons why both the Biden administration and the Saudis are unlikely to sign off on any such agreement. More than that, the price that Israel is going to be asked to pay—in terms both stated and implied—for the privilege of exchanging ambassadors with the Saudis is not something Netanyahu ought to agree to. Biden’s motives in pursuing this course of action may seem to be in accord with Israel’s interests; however, his real object is more likely to be regime change in Jerusalem and a new deal with Iran.

The Saudis have already stated their demands for any normalization with Israel. That would involve the United States satisfying the wish list the Saudis passed on to Biden earlier in the year, as first reported in The Wall Street Journal. That included the gift of a civilian nuclear program, the sale of advanced American weapons and formal guarantees of their security.

Would Biden actually go along with all or even most of those requests?

Washington has never wanted to validate the Saudis’ desire for a response to Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon with its own project. And most of Biden’s Democratic Party despises the Saudis as a reactionary regime. They are far more comfortable with the administration’s so-far futile effort to entice the Islamists in Tehran to agree to an even weaker and more dangerous nuclear deal than former President Barack Obama’s 2015 pact with Iran.

U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on July 17, 2022. Source: Wikimedia Commons via the U.S. president’s Twitter account.

Making Israel pay

So why would Biden pick up where Trump left off and deploy American leverage to bring about such a deal?

The reason is that Israel would be made to pay for it. According to Friedman, Israel would have to make concessions to the Palestinian Authority with settlement freezes; a pledge against annexing parts of Judea and Samaria; and handing over parts of Area C of the territories, which is under Israeli control. This would supposedly strengthen corrupt P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas. But it may also encourage his terrorist rivals and make the security for the Jewish communities in Area C even more precarious than they already are.

The main benefit of such a deal in Friedman’s eyes is that it would put Netanyahu in a tight spot. His religious Zionist allies would never stand for it and, according to the Times columnist, that would force Netanyahu to turn to the parties of the left for coalition partners. Of course, those parties, including Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party, which is most often mentioned as a potential partner for the prime minister, have pledged never to sit in a coalition with Netanyahu.

When that is taken into account, then perhaps what Friedman and Biden really want is to use a Saudi offer not to strengthen Israel or even to ensure that Riyadh backs away from its current tilt towards China and a rapprochement with Iran. Their goal is a crackup of Netanyahu’s coalition as well as to boot him out of the prime minister’s office

As Oren points out, Netanyahu wouldn’t mind exchanging the combined 14 seats of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit in the Knesset for Gantz’s 12 seats. That would give him a more centrist government and reduce his dependence on the right, a position more comfortable for the long-serving prime minister. It would also mean shelving the push for judicial reform and effectively sinking the efforts of the anti-Bibi resistance.

Still, Netanyahu should be wary of such a transaction.

The first problem—the idea that concessions to the Palestinians are the sticking point for the Saudis—is nonsense.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, feels he must pay lip service to the Palestinians and make demands on their behalf in order to maintain his nation’s standing in the Arab and Muslim world as the guardian of Islam’s holy places. The Saudis were perfectly happy to sign off on the Abraham Accords involving other nations without doing a thing for the Palestinians in 2020. That was because they, like other Arab governments, are tired of having their interests held hostage to an intransigent Palestinian leadership that has no interest in peace with Israel under any circumstances.

Yet the Saudis are actually quite pleased with their current unofficial security and economic ties with Israel. If they are going to expose themselves to bitter attacks from Islamists by formalizing their relations with Israel, then they feel they should be handsomely rewarded by the Americans. That they asked for so much is also a clear signal that they believe Biden had no intention of ever giving them what they want.

Is Biden desperate enough for his own Abraham Accords signing ceremony in order to satisfy them? Again, I’m skeptical. Though his Iran envoy Robert Malley was suspended by an inquiry that is rumored to concern his handling of classified documents in the course of his efforts to appease the mullahs, Biden’s foreign-policy team is still more interested in diplomacy with Iran than with the Saudis, let alone strengthening Israel.

Moreover, the pushback from his own Democratic Party, especially its influential progressive wing that has held the whip hand over Biden since he took office, against any concessions to the Saudis will be ferocious. Biden has shown repeatedly that he has no appetite for confronting the Democrats’ left-wing activist base. That he would do so now in order to take a page from Trump’s policy playbook seems highly unlikely.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Finance Bezalel Smotrich during a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 18, 2023. Photo by Amit Shabi/POOL.

Undermining Netanyahu

The one thing that makes sense about this scenario is that it is something that is intended to undermine Netanyahu.

It’s possible that Gantz is either hopelessly naive or such a principled patriot that he’s willing to enter into a coalition with the prime minister. In the spring of 2020, he was hoodwinked by Netanyahu into leaving the anti-Bibi alliance and forming a coalition that would ultimately lead to a rotation in which he would eventually replace him. At the time, everyone but Gantz seemed to know that Netanyahu would betray his promise. And that’s just what he did.

Common sense as well as his animus for Netanyahu would seem to dictate that he will stick with opposition leader Yair Lapid. But maybe his belief in the need for unity in the face of a growing threat from Iran’s Hezbollah henchmen in Lebanon, as well as the hope of normalization with the Saudis, means that he can be lured back into such a coalition.

As devoted as Likud voters are to Netanyahu, for him to betray his promises about carrying out a much-needed reform of the out-of-control Supreme Court and the judiciary while at the same time making dangerous concessions to the Palestinians would undermine his standing with his own party, as well as cause outrage among its right-wing allies. Oren believes that a possible return to the Cabinet of Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri will help Netanyahu execute such a switch. That would be made possible because of the passage of the law forbidding the court to overrule the government because the judges arbitrarily believe that something is unreasonable — the rationale for the Israeli Supreme Court vetoing his appointment. Yet such a move might still cause a crisis on the right among Knesset members who would see this as a betrayal of their voters.

The only thing we know for sure about this diplomatic initiative is that Biden’s goal is to position Netanyahu as the obstacle to peace with the Saudis.

Former President Donald Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia talk together during ceremonies at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 20, 2017. Credit: Official White House Photo Shealah Craighead.

That’s why he should make it clear that if there is to be a deal with Riyadh, it won’t be paid for by further empowering a corrupt Palestinian leadership that is primarily interested in fomenting attacks on Israel and not a two-state solution.

If the United States wants to ensure that the Saudis are not being seduced by China, then there is no rational reason that Israel should be weakened in order to achieve that goal. And it’s far from clear that the Saudis are even remotely interested in pushing for the kind of concessions that would harm Israeli security while not doing anything to enhance their own.

There’s no way of telling how this will all turn out. But the optimism about a deal for which the Saudis have no real enthusiasm and whose terms are unlikely to be acceptable to Biden or Netanyahu seems unwarranted.

Neither Biden nor Friedman wishes Netanyahu well. Any initiative they are likely to pursue or cheer for is not one geared to be in Israel’s national interests. If and when the Saudis are ready to upgrade relations with Israel it will be because the United States has made it worth their while to do so—something that Biden may not be able or willing to do. And when that day does arrive, it shouldn’t come at a price that will undermine Israel or strengthen Palestinians who have no interest at all in peace.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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