columnMiddle East

Israel-Saudi normalization has nothing to do with Biden

The administration’s motives for pushing a new deal have more to do with the president’s 2024 re-election campaign and his failed Iran policies than peace.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, March 7, 2022. Credit: Murathakan Art/Shutterstock.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, March 7, 2022. Credit: Murathakan Art/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

During its first years in office, the Biden administration had difficulty saying the words “Abraham Accords,” let alone taking actions to follow up and expand upon the Trump administration’s foreign-policy triumph. That’s changed in the last several months. The Biden administration has taken up the cause of promoting a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But if those two countries are moving ever closer to each other—something about which there is no doubt—it has little to do with the efforts of President Joe Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The evidence of that closeness was clearly on display in the past week as two Israeli ministers in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government visited the desert kingdom. Tourism Minister Haim Katz became the first member of Israel’s cabinet to be granted an entry visa by the Saudis when he attended a conference of the U.N. World Tourism Organization there for World Tourism Day. This week, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi arrived in Riyadh at the head of a 14-person delegation, including a fellow Knesset member and representatives of various other ministries. While there, they took part in a religious service for Sukkot.

Putting Biden in his place

The pictures of an Israeli politician visiting Saudi Arabia dressed in a tallit and holding a lulav and etrog were amazing, especially when considering just how unimaginable such a thing would have been only a few years ago. But it was probably not as shocking as the willingness of that country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), to speak openly of normalization with Israel.

During an interview held last month with Fox News Channel’s Brett Baier, MBS dismissed the idea that efforts to bring the two countries closer had stalled. “Every day we get closer,” he said.

Obstacles, of course, remain before the realization of a normalization agreement, including the exchange of ambassadors. Moreover, there are still reasons to believe that MBS and the Saudis may be perfectly happy to grow ever closer to Israel as a strategic military ally against Iran and a potential business partner without going all the way to a peace treaty. The symbolism that goes with such a decision remains tricky for a regime whose claim to legitimacy in the Arab world is that of the guardian of Islam’s holy places in Mecca and Medina.

Yet the main takeaway from this exchange is that the Biden administration was put in its place. Unlike the situation in 2020, when the Trump administration was the driving force behind the diplomatic momentum that led to the Abraham Accords, Biden and Blinken may be as much of a hindrance to the Israel-Saudi relationship as they are a help.

American diplomacy on this subject has highlighted how mired the veterans of the Obama administration who still run foreign policy under Biden are in failed policies of the past. Their insistence on including Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, coupled with reviving the dead-in-the-water peace process and the quest for a two-state solution to the conflict, indicate that they fail to understand why normalization is even possible in the first place.

The Arab states—and MBS, in particular—comprehend, as perhaps many in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment and media still do not, that the Palestinians have no interest in peace with Israel. As such, they are tired of having their security and national interests being held hostage by a Palestinian political culture that cannot let go of its century-old war on Zionism.

The American push to include the Palestinians in any deal is more about the Biden administration’s desire to topple Netanyahu’s government—since many of its members wouldn’t tolerate sacrificing the Jewish state’s rights in Judea and Samaria in order to buy an embassy in Riyadh—than any pure-hearted interest in peace.

That brings us back to what is driving Biden’s recent interest in Israel-Saudi peace. He has two main objectives.

One is a desire to keep the Saudis from turning to China for help with Iran and to ensure the flow of oil to an America that discarded energy independence for environmentalist ideology, but now faces shortfalls due to sanctions on Russia after it invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

The second is for some sort of a foreign-policy success heading into the president’s already shaky re-election campaign in which most national polls show that he is either tied with former President Donald Trump or actually trailing him.

No re-election year Israel charm offensive

This should not be confused with an election-year pivot on Israel that was comparable to the one that former President Barack Obama executed in 2012.

After three years of doing his best to create more “daylight” between the United States and Israel, as well as fomenting public spats with Netanyahu, Obama moved to quiet talk of a rift with the Jewish state as he headed into a tough re-election fight. What followed were speeches such as his address to the 2012 AIPAC Policy Conference, during which he pledged to ensure that Iran would never get a nuclear weapon.

We now know that he was already plotting to betray those promises by initiating secret talks with Iran. But in public, he stuck to the script even to the point of vowing in his 2012 foreign-policy debate with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that any deal he struck with Iran would mean the dismantling of its nuclear program.

Those promises would be quickly forgotten once Obama was re-elected, but his Israel charm offensive shored up his hold on the Jewish vote, winning 69%. That was down from 78% in 2008 but was still deeply disappointing to Republicans, many of whom had wrongly assumed that a president who had made no secret of his antagonism for Israel would be punished at the polls by Jewish Democrats.

But liberal Jews still backed him, even when he spent much of his second term working to appease Iran, something that culminated in the 2015 nuclear deal.

Biden is not as worried about Jewish voters as Obama was.

In America’s current bifurcated political culture, the notion that a population as overwhelmingly liberal as the Jews would cross over to vote for a Republican, let alone Trump, over Israel or any other issue is pure fantasy. It’s a source of immense frustration to Trump, who never tires of venting his anger over the fact that most Jews didn’t consider his status as the most pro-Israel president ever to be a reason to vote for him. While politically conservative Jews and the Orthodox will support the former president, the Democrats know they don’t have to do a thing, especially with regards to an Israel led by Netanyahu that many on the Jewish left dislike, in order to equal the 68% of the Jewish vote that he received in 2020.

Nevertheless, Biden does want something he can call a foreign-policy victory. To date, his main accomplishments abroad involve his disastrous retreat from Afghanistan and the way his blunders helped lead to the war in Ukraine.

His priority coming into office was to revive Obama’s nuclear deal that Trump had abandoned. But knowing that the new president was bent on appeasing rather than pressuring them (a fact that was reinforced by the way Biden’s negotiating team was compromised by its pro-Iran bias), the Iranians refused to go along, and have sat back and watched sanctions go unenforced. They also saw Biden resort to a ransom deal that brought them billions while they chipped away at making progress towards building their own nuclear weapon. 

What the Saudis want

As we learned this past week, Iran’s nuclear program has now reached the point where it is now a given that the Iranians can assemble a bomb in less than two weeks, essentially ending in the failure of Western and Israeli efforts to prevent such an outcome.

As MBS told Fox News, the Saudis won’t sit by and allow their sworn enemies in Tehran to get a bomb without seeking one themselves. That’s why the wish list they handed the Americans earlier this year as the price for signing a normalization agreement included U.S. assistance to create a Saudi nuclear program.

That’s never going to happen. Most Democrats despise the Saudis and wouldn’t go along with a treaty guaranteeing their defense—another possible component of a normalization deal—even without helping the authoritarian monarchy in Riyadh go nuclear.

The Saudis are willing to pay lip service to the Palestinians. But it’s equally clear that MBS’s government has zero interest in efforts to create another independent Palestinian Arab state besides the Hamas-run terrorist enclave in the Gaza Strip. In his interview with Baer, MBS spoke of wanting to “ease the lives of Palestinians” but conspicuously left out any mention of two states or Israeli territorial concessions. The only ones talking about those dubious objectives are Biden’s team.

This leaves the president caught in an interesting bind. He’d like a diplomatic win to boost his re-election chances, but the Biden team is too interested in undermining Netanyahu and in trying to somehow salvage their desire for a rapprochement with Iran to return to a policy that weds the United States to its traditional Israeli and Saudi allies.

That leaves Biden’s Middle East policy a hopeless muddle. Nevertheless, as both Netanyahu and MBS have made clear, they don’t need Washington to hold their hands in order for the two countries to grow closer. These two once-unlikely friends were brought together by Obama’s pivot to Iran and the nuclear dilemma, as well as their national interests. That will continue to bind them in an informal alliance that can thrive even without a signed treaty.

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

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