Along with stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia is the top foreign-policy priority for the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Netanyahu would be wise not to go along with American demands that are reportedly being put forward as the price that Israel should pay for Saudi normalization.
The road to an exchange of embassies—and all that goes with it—between Israel and the Saudis runs through Washington. And the prospects for the Americans being willing to give the Saudis what they will insist on getting for normalization with Israel is likely far higher than President Joe Biden will be able to hand over, even if he was truly committed to the objective.
The Israelis value their close, under-the-table relationship with the Saudis and are right to regard the prospect of its conversion into one that is out in the open as a valuable prize. Doing so would solidify the Jewish state’s acceptance as a permanent part of the Middle East by countries that were once pledged never to recognize it and to work for its destruction. That’s especially true for Saudi Arabia. By virtue of its wealth and possession of Islam’s holiest places, Riyadh is one of the most influential nations in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
The expectation in 2020 was that sooner or later, Riyadh would openly embrace peace with Israel. The Saudis’ tacit approval was necessary for the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to join the agreement, and their close cooperation with Israel on security matters was an open secret as both looked to each other as allies against the potent regional threat posed by Iran. But converting that under-the-table relationship into one that would be openly acknowledged was always harder than many people thought, including former President Donald Trump.
Up until recently, Biden’s foreign-policy team had shown little interest in advancing the project that was the signature accomplishment of their predecessors. Indeed, it took the collection of Obama administration alumni that returned to power in 2021 more than a year to force themselves to even utter the words “Abraham Accords” when referencing Trump’s forging of a peace deal that enabled four Arab and Muslim-majority countries to formally recognize the State of Israel in the fall of 2020.
But after two years of downplaying them, the Biden administration has finally demonstrated that it wants to advance this project. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told AIPAC that Saudi-Israeli normalization is in America’s national security interests. And he arrived in Saudi Arabia last week for meetings with that objective on the agenda.
The reason for the American interest has little to do with a desire to help Israel. Biden is caught in a complicated foreign-policy tangle that is partly the result of unfortunate circumstances and partly the product of his own misguided policies.
The president came into office showing nothing but contempt for the Saudis, whose de facto leader, Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), he labeled as a thug and a murderer. As with former President Barack Obama, Biden’s foreign-policy team wanted to rethink American Middle East policy and reorient it away from dependence on traditional allies like the Saudis and Israel, and instead adopt a rapprochement with Iran.
But as was the case with Obama’s disastrous 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which enriched and empowered the rogue regime in Tehran and destabilized the region while doing nothing to help the United States, Biden’s efforts have proved equally counterproductive.
The Iranians have played Biden and Blinken for fools by refusing each offer of a new nuclear deal that is weaker and more dangerous than the last one. In the meantime, the Iranians have grown closer to Russia—the focus of Biden’s animus because of its invasion of Ukraine. It also gave an opening to China—America’s true geostrategic enemy—to make inroads in the region. And alienating the Saudis made them unwilling to sacrifice their own economic interests to make up for the energy crisis caused by the boycott of Moscow and equally reluctant to snub the Chinese. As a result, China brokered a rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran that has rightly scared Washington into action.
That, along with the need for some kind of foreign-policy triumph in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election, has led Biden to begin exploring whether he can get some Abraham Accords glory of his own.
As he showed in 2020 when the Trump administration was helping to bring the Abraham Accords into existence that normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (Morocco and Sudan subsequently also joined), Netanyahu is willing to do a lot, including making political compromises, to expand the circle of nations in the region that formally recognize Israel. In order to seal that deal, Netanyahu made it clear that he would forgo the formal extension of Israeli law over Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.
What the Americans and Saudis want
The Biden administration is aware of this and has started making public the concessions they would like the Israelis to make this time. On the list are American demands for Netanyahu to restart peace talks with the Palestinians and to drop his government’s push for judicial reform.
The Saudis have been making public noises for years about relations with Israel depending on a resolution of Palestinian demands. That was reinforced this past week when Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said at a joint press conference that normalization would “have limited benefits” without there being a “two-state solution” that would grant the Palestinians their independence.
While they feel they have to make public gestures of support for the Palestinian cause, the idea that the Saudis are desperate for the creation of another failing Arab state in the region is pure fiction. Moreover, they’re finished with making their economic and strategic interests dependent on the Palestinians, who have held the Arab world hostage for decades. They know that neither Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas nor Hamas has any interest in peace or a two-state solution, which they have repeatedly rejected over the decades.
As for the Americans throwing the controversy over judicial reform into the mix, this is nothing but a cynical attempt to bolster Netanyahu’s opposition and to make him look bad to Israeli voters who are divided over the effort to place a check on the untrammeled power of the country’s Supreme Court. Whatever the virtues of the measure (and it would make Israel more democratic, not less so), the Saudis couldn’t care less about it.
The truth is that the obstacles to Saudi normalization are entirely American.
As The Wall Street Journal reported back in March, the Saudis made clear what they need in exchange for normalization with Israel. They want the United States to formally commit to guarantee their security. And, in addition to more arms sales, they want aid for a civilian nuclear program, though that is widely interpreted as the beginning of a Saudi quest for a bomb with which they can deter Iran. Conspicuous by its absence from the list of Saudi demands was any assurance from the United States or Israel about creating an independent Palestinian state.
Most of all, they don’t want the Americans concluding a new weak Iran deal that will, despite their recent pact with Tehran, pose a direct threat to the existence of the Saudi monarchy. Yet as reports continue to indicate, and despite official denials of an imminent agreement, the Americans are pressing ahead with efforts to achieve a new accord with the Iranians.
Even if no nuclear deal emerges, Biden is unlikely to give the Saudis what they want.
No American administration wants to give them nuclear capability of any kind. But the Chinese will, especially if a new Iran pact guarantees, as Obama’s did, that Tehran will eventually get a bomb.
Just as much of an obstacle is the fact that his own party is unlikely to go along with arms sales or other concessions to the Saudis. The liberal corporate press has been working hard to demonize the Saudis for years, portraying MBS as a monster. The Saudis’ unpopularity was on display this week after the announced merger of the massively funded Saudi-sponsored upstart LIV Golf tour this week with the long-established PGA tour.
Even Americans who don’t care about golf seemed to be dismayed that Saudi oil billionaires successfully bought effective control of the sport. Liberal journalists have been raising the specter of that country’s responsibility for the 9/11 attacks to bash the deal, in spite of the fact that the whole point of the changes MBS has been pushing forward is to demonstrate that the desert kingdom wants to turn away from its past as a funder of fundamentalist Islam and terrorism.
In this atmosphere, most Democrats are not going to vote to give anything to the Saudis.
There has always been a school of thought that believed the Saudis will never jeopardize their standing as the guardians of Islam’s holy places by formalizing their strategic alliance with Israel. But even if they have decided, as they should, that the economic, diplomatic and military benefits of normalization far outweigh the damage it will do to their reputation among Muslims, the inducements that will convince them to do so can only come from the United States, not Israel.
Beleaguered as he is by the anti-judicial reform demonstrations, Netanyahu is, if anything, even more in need of a diplomatic triumph and a distraction from his political woes than Biden. Still, he should be smart enough to know that giving the Americans any concessions—no matter how valuable—will not guarantee Saudi normalization, stop a new Iran deal or secure Washington’s acquiescence for a strike on Tehran’s nuclear facilities if it comes to that. As he has in the past, Netanyahu must say “no” to Washington’s latest diktats.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.