Over the past week, the media have been aflutter with reports and rumors that the Biden administration has decided to mediate a peace accord between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The case for peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia is easy to make. Owing to their shared interest in containing Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia have developed cooperative intelligence ties and strategic relations for a decade. Even without formal diplomatic relations, trade ties between the two countries are significant and quickly expanding.
A formal Saudi-Israeli accord would form a strategic ballast against Iran’s rise as a regional hegemon. It would destabilize the Iranian regime and its satrapies in the Levant.
For Saudi Arabia, the drawback of open relations with Israel is that it would have to accept the hypocrisy of its official hostility towards the Jewish state, and its actual friendship and reliance on it. Islamist media outlets like Qatar’s Al Jazeera will pillory it. But then again, they already do.
All the same, unless the U.S. provides them with some payoff, the Saudis say they prefer to maintain their relations with Israel under the radar for now.
Israel has made no effort to hide its eagerness to forge a peace with Saudi Arabia. But like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has no reason to pay a significant price to formalize relations that already exist.
This brings us to the United States. Arguably, the party with the most to gain from a U.S.-mediated agreement is the United States itself. Such an accord would reassert America’s superpower primacy in the region over both China and Russia at a very low cost.
Such an accord would empower America’s closest regional allies at the expense of Iran—Washington’s most powerful regional enemy. A Saudi-Israel accord would facilitate the bipartisan goal of diminishing U.S. involvement in the region. It would stabilize other U.S. allies, including Egypt and Jordan, and destabilize both the Iranian regime and its proxy regimes in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
At the same time, a Saudi-Israeli peace would effectively end the Arab-Israeli conflict, thus delivering the long-sought dream of American statesmen since President Harry Truman.
To offset what it views as a political price for normalizing ties with the Jewish state, Saudi Arabia has asked the United States to designate it a major non-NATO ally. The Biden administration designated Qatar as a major non-NATO ally in 2021, despite Qatar’s close ties to Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and other terror groups.
Riyadh also asked the administration for a guaranteed supply of advanced weapons and for U.S. cooperation in peaceful nuclear activities.
If President Joe Biden responds favorably to its requests, the Saudis have told numerous interlocutors, the Kingdom will agree to a U.S.-mediated peace with Israel.
‘An America with neither allies nor enemies’
Israel has not asked the United States for anything specific in exchange for peace with Saudi Arabia.
When looking at a similar deal between Israel and the UAE in 2020, then-President Donald Trump did not hesitate. To offset what the United Arab Emirates viewed as the price of making peace with the state it had long joined its Arab League partners in condemning, Abu Dhabi asked the United States for F-35s, and it asked Netanyahu to put his plan to apply Israeli law to parts of Judea and Samaria and the Jordan Valley on ice.
Trump had no difficulty agreeing to the deal. As for Netanyahu, by the time UAE leader Mohamed Bin Zayed made his offer, Trump had abandoned his previous support for the sovereignty plan. Netanyahu’s then-defense minister, Benny Gantz, had vetoed the plan, and the national religious parties had rejected it. So agreeing to temporarily postpone its implementation was an easy move for Netanyahu.
Unfortunately, the Biden administration sees things differently.
Rather than view Israeli-Saudi peace as a net gain for the United States, Biden and his advisors apparently view it as a means to achieve different regional ends. Like former President Barack Obama, Biden’s Middle East policy doesn’t involve strengthening U.S. allies and undermining U.S. foes. It involves compelling Israel and Saudi Arabia to accept Iran as a rival power. As Lee Smith put it recently at Tablet magazine, Obama’s vision for the Middle East, which Biden and his team are working to implement, is one of “an America with neither allies nor enemies in the region.”
To achieve this end, the Biden administration has been indefatigable in its efforts to reach an accord with Iran through nuclear appeasement. On Wednesday, the Iranian media reported that the Sultan of Oman is set to travel to Tehran to mediate nuclear negotiations between Washington and Tehran.
The administration has driven a stake through its relations with Saudi Arabia by openly calling for MBS to be ousted and treated as a pariah.
Likewise, the administration has been openly hostile to Israel’s core strategic interests vis à vis Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah and the Palestinians. On the eve of last year’s elections, the administration forced Israel’s transition government to accept a gas deal with Lebanon that surrendered its territorial and economic waters and a natural-gas deposit to Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon. The administration’s posture towards Israel is openly hostile in relation to the Palestinians. The United States seeks to undercut and delegitimize Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem and its military operations in Judea and Samaria.
Moreover, the Biden administration has interfered in domestic Israeli politics in a manner unprecedented in the history of U.S.-Israel ties. Since Netanyahu formed his government in December, in a departure from normal diplomatic protocol, the administration has openly criticized and even condemned its domestic policies. Most notably, Biden and his advisers have rejected the Netanyahu government’s effort to restore the balance of powers and strengthen Israeli democracy by placing minimal limits on the currently unchecked powers of Israel’s Supreme Court and Attorney General.
Rather than embrace the Abraham Accords—and work to expand them to Saudi Arabia and other likeminded Arab states—since entering office, Biden and his team have sought to gut them and transform the accords into a vehicle to restore the PLO’s veto power over peace between Israel and the Arab world. At the Negev Forum last year, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made the Palestinians the main subject of discussion. The administration portrayed the gas deal with Lebanon, which gave an economic lifeline to Hezbollah, as a means to “integrate” Israel into the region, when it was actually a way of rewarding Iran’s Lebanese proxy.
Given this state of affairs, it wasn’t a surprise this week when Biden’s list of demands to mediate Saudi-Israeli peace began leaking. Both the Americans and the Saudis are insisting that Israel make significant concessions to the terror-sponsoring Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria in exchange for peace. It isn’t clear whether MBS is making the demands at Washington’s behest or because he simply understands that this is part of the game of working with the Biden administration. For their part, Saudi interlocutors have repeatedly expressed indifference to the Palestinian conflict with Israel in off-the-record conversations with Israelis and American Jews.
Beyond the Palestinians, on Tuesday the Israeli media reported that Biden is demanding that Netanyahu agree to bury his government’s plan to reform the legal system. If he refuses, the reports claim that Biden will not agree to mediate Israeli-Saudi peace.
Given the brazen hostility of the reported U.S. position, Netanyahu and his advisers would do well to consider why Arab states have made peace with Israel in the past.
In all cases, the Arab states that have made formal peace deals with Israel in the past did so because Israel had something to give them. With both the Abraham Accords and Israel’s peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, by making peace with Israel, the Arab states received better ties with the United States.
Today, the Biden administration is moved far more by its domestic constituents who are hostile to Israel than by U.S. strategic interests as those were understood by the United States until the Obama administration. As a result, the Biden administration is adopting policies that are hostile to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and to peace between them. Biden’s refusal to date to host Netanyahu at the White House is a graphic demonstration of his administration’s hostile bent.
Netanyahu cannot deliver the concessions Washington is demanding. If he accepts the U.S./Saudi demand to give the Palestinians security powers in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem that Israel holds, Israel will undermine its national security and endanger its national interests. If Netanyahu agrees to cancel his efforts to reform the legal system, he will destabilize his government.
Moreover, given the current anti-Saudi bent among Democrats, Netanyahu will be hard-pressed to persuade Biden to agree to MBS’s demands.
To foster peace with Saudi Arabia, Israel has to do what it has been doing all along: serve as a block on Iran’s rise. Israel’s ties with Saudi Arabia were forged in 2013 as a result of Obama’s realignment towards Iran and away from Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Saudis saw that Israel was steady in its opposition to Iran’s empowerment and that it was militarily and technologically competent to prevent Iran from becoming the regional hegemon. To protect themselves, the Saudis set aside their longtime hatred of the Jewish state and began supporting its efforts to defeat Iran’s Palestinian proxies and sabotage its nuclear program and nuclear diplomacy.
The way to transform these sub rosa ties into an above-the-table alliance is for Israel to undermine Iran’s power. Israel doesn’t need to take military action to accomplish this goal. The best way to avoid a devastating regional war with Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Gaza, Judea and Samaria, and Syria is for Israel to help the Iranian people to overthrow the regime.
A “highly confidential” IRGC document leaked this week to Radio Free Europe documents concern among senior regime officials that the country is on the verge of an “explosion,” with civil unrest reaching a crescendo. Nearly every day, more industrial plants blow up. Workers strike. And even as the regime ratchets up its execution of protesters, the protests continue. An Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps base was bombed earlier this month. IRGC forces are under attack on the roads and in their bases.
Israeli support for striking Iranian workers and sabotage of Iranian military installations will go a long way towards destabilizing the regime and empowering the people rising up against it.
Such action, in turn, will demonstrate both Israel’s power and its importance as a regional power, drawing its neighbors, first and foremost Saudi Arabia, closer to Jerusalem.
This may cause MBS to conclude that he wants to directly negotiate a peace with Israel without preconditions. It may cause Biden to drop his demands for mediation. It may convince another party to step into the breach and mediate an accord. Whatever the case, destabilizing the Iranian regime and empowering the Iranian people will strengthen Israel, diminish the chances of regional war and so stabilize the region far more than paying an unwarranted price for a paper peace.