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The Saudi two-step

The question is whether it is better to ally with both Saudi Arabias or neither.

The flags of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Credit: OnePixelStudio/Shutterstock.
The flags of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Credit: OnePixelStudio/Shutterstock.
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur is the U.S. politics editor for the Jewish Journal.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

I have always tried to abide by Fitzgerald’s dictum, but the current debate over U.S. and Israeli policy towards Saudi Arabia is putting my capabilities to the test. 

On one hand, we know that the Saudi leadership is a force for evil. We know that they commit horrific human rights atrocities against their own people, provide vast amounts of funding to the type of radical Islamic fundamentalists who carried out the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and that they murdered an American journalist.

But we also know that the Saudis are a force for peace. We know that they are the leaders of the Middle East coalition that has developed to push back against Iranian aggression, and we know that a partnership with Israel could be a key to not only restraining Iran but towards a broader acceptance of Israel in the Arab world.

It would be nice to be able to punish the first of those two Saudi Arabias without losing an opportunity to benefit from a relationship with the second. It would be just as comforting to partner with the second Saudi Arabia without being forced to befriend the first. But that’s not the way the world works. So the question for both the United States and Israel is whether it is better to ally ourselves with both of those Saudi Arabias or neither.

This already difficult decision no longer exists in a vacuum. Now that China has emerged as a player in the Middle East, taking credit for brokering a treaty between Iran and Saudi Arabia and suggesting a similar role in Israeli talks with the Palestinians, the U.S. has even fewer options. Either move forward with the Saudis—even if that means providing them with enhanced military support and possibly nuclear capability—or let China further supplant the American presence in this critical part of the world.

Israel’s challenge is even more complicated. Expanding the Abraham Accords to include a normal relationship with Saudi Arabia could provide a level of security that the Jewish state has never enjoyed in its 75 years of existence. But it would also require fundamental changes to Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, and while Saudi leaders have been vague about what those steps would entail, it’s clear that anything close to a two-state solution would cause extraordinary political upheaval within Israel.

Most of the Arab countries that comprise the anti-Iran coalition have deprioritized the Palestinian matter in recent years, which has worked to Israel’s advantage on both fronts. But if Saudi Arabia were to demand that Israel move toward some sort of peace deal with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Israeli leaders would be forced to decide which of these two imperatives are more important. Benjamin Netanyahu’s fragile coalition could easily rupture over this question, and the subsequent fracas could provide an opportunity for Benny Gantz-ish centrists to regain power.

But Netanyahu also knows that a Saudi peace deal could immensely boost his stature with Israeli voters and distract them from the domestic political disputes that have plagued his current term in office. He wants to be remembered as a statesman who made Israel safe: a treaty with Saudi Arabia could provide him with that legacy. But only if the voters believe that he didn’t give up too much to get the deal.

U.S. President Joe Biden would similarly benefit from being seen as the driving force behind such a historic agreement. Biden also understands that while both Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are more comfortable working with Republicans, it might require a Democratic president to convince his party’s congressional members to set aside their suspicions towards Saudi Arabia and give their support.

Biden, who once vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” has apparently decided that, in this instance, peace comes before human rights. Now Netanyahu faces an equally challenging decision of his own.

Originally published by Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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