columnMiddle East

Should we care if Biden cools off relations with Saudis?

The pro-Israel community should speak up against a new administration downgrading ties with Gulf states and others pursuing peace with Israel.

The Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, Saudi Arabia, containing the tomb of Muhammad. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, Saudi Arabia, containing the tomb of Muhammad. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It’s the greatest of ironies. It wasn’t that long ago that Saudi Arabia was thought of as an implacable enemy of Israel and the Jewish people. The Saudis were not merely a foe of the Jewish state, using their oil wealth to fund Palestinian groups; Riyadh was also the principal funder of fundamentalist Islamic madrassas around the world, institutions that were fueling a new surge in global anti-Semitism. A generation ago, U.S. plans to sell the Saudis early-warning and combat-control planes (AWACS) that were not offensive in nature set off one of the biggest and nastiest political fights in memory in which the AIPAC lobby engaged in a bruising battle with the Reagan administration.

But a lot has changed since the Saudis were viewed as a threat to Israel. Today, the prospect that a new Democratic government would cool off relations with the Saudis or—as former Vice President and prospective President-elect Joe Biden put it, treat them like a ”pariah”—is worrying the pro-Israel community and will likely to lead them to back a push to head off such efforts. Indeed, a hard line against the Saudis, which would have once been welcomed by Jews, is now seen as hurting Israel and undermining the chance for more normalization agreements between the Jewish state and the Arab world.

The Saudi government is still a family-run authoritarian regime. It has a dismal human-rights record and, as the guardians of the holiest shrines of Islam in Mecca and Medina, the royal family is loath to do anything that would undermine its stance as the center of the Muslim world.

Although its relations with Israel are still under rather than over the table, there’s no question that the Saudis are the lynchpin of the recent successful effort by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government in Israel to break down the last vestiges of the Arab war against the Jewish state’s existence.

Simply put, without the acquiescence of the Saudis, neither the United Arab Emirates nor Bahrain would have signed the Abraham Accords with Israel. And if that wasn’t a strong enough message by itself, the Saudi decision to grant Israeli airplanes the right to fly over its airspace was a body blow to the BDS movement and any residual support for Arab boycotts of Israel. Whether or not the Saudis follow up these moves with their own normalization agreement with Israel, it’s clear that they have embraced the Jewish state as an ally and economic partner. The only question is how far they are willing to go to defy radical Islamist opinion and openly embrace the Jewish state?

The Saudi decision isn’t a function of a sentimental attachment to Zionism or a radical change in heart about the justice of Israel’s cause. As Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former ambassador to the United States and member of the royal family said last month, his government still considers Israel’s cause to be unjust and, in principle, supports the Palestinians. But he also described Palestinian leaders as “despicable” and “failures” who have spent the last century “betting on the losing side, and that comes at a price.”

The Saudis have been moving gradually towards Israel and away from the Palestinians for the last 20 years as they sought an exit ramp from a conflict they regarded as having no upside for them. That shift accelerated in the last decade as the United States under President Barack Obama sought a rapprochement with the Saudis’ deadly rival, Iran. Rightly feeling abandoned by their former staunch U.S. ally and threatened by Tehran, the Saudis looked to Israel as the only strategic force in the region that could help them defend their independence.

Faced with a choice between sticking with the Palestinians and their inability to make peace under any circumstances and embracing a Jewish state that could serve as a reliable and powerful regional partner, Riyadh determined that it was no choice at all. The only sensible move to enhance their security was to embrace Israel and make it clear to the Palestinians that they were on their own—and that is exactly what they did.

The tacit alliance between Israel and the Saudis has already paid dividends to both countries. Israel got the Saudis’ blessing for more normalization deals while having a regional superpower as an ally against an increasingly aggressive Iran bolstered the Saudis’ defense posture.

At this point, any effort to isolate Saudi Arabia is not only unhelpful to further efforts to expand the Abraham Accords to other Arab nations. It’s also a gift to Iran, which is as committed to overthrowing the Saudi royal family as it is to destroying the Jewish state. An Iranian nuclear weapon, which Obama virtually guaranteed with a pact that enriched and empowered Tehran, and that will expire within a few years, is aimed at the Saudis every bit as much as it is at Jerusalem.

Why then would Biden seek to undermine a traditional U.S. ally, albeit a deeply imperfect government that doesn’t pass the human-rights smell test? The answer is clear. In the mindset of former Obama administration officials who were obsessed with becoming friends with Iran, and establishing more “daylight” between the United States and Israel, the Saudis now represent, like Netanyahu’s Israel, an obstacle to diplomatic efforts to pressure the Jewish state and to appease Iran.

The squeamishness about Saudi brutality, such as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the regime working for The Washington Post, is something of a smokescreen. The Saudis aren’t a problem for America because they throw their weight around in the region or aren’t a democracy. The Saudis aren’t any more vicious or less willing to engage in democracy as any other nation in the region not named Israel. Moreover, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan, they have largely abandoned the funding of Islamist fundamentalism around the globe—something that is now largely done by the government of Qatar, an Iranian ally.

As is the case with Egypt, another Arab government that represses their own people which Americans would like to reform, creating a liberal democracy in Saudi Arabia is not an achievable goal. Rather than trashing the Saudis, Biden should be following up on what Trump achieved and helping Riyadh promote peace. Treating it like a “pariah” will do the opposite, which is exactly why pro-Israel groups need to persuade Biden to refrain from committing the same errors that Obama made.

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

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