Saudi-Israel normalisation remains a distant dream for Biden
To those of us following US foreign policy towards the Middle East, it has now become evident that normalising relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel has become the top priority of the Biden administration.
Indeed, President Joe Biden has entrusted Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and other high officials with negotiating the deal that would seal this very important development.
Equally evident has been Saudi Arabia’s willingness to engage in discussion about recognising Israel, but it will not do so on the cheap. As putative leader of the current Arab political order and the religious centre of the Muslim world, the Kingdom is trying to extract the maximum price for its coveted recognition of the Zionist state.
Only time will tell what the final details of the coming deal will be, but considering current obstacles to it, it is not likely to be signed any time soon, despite a great deal of fuss in the press.
"While the demands from the United States run into serious congressional obstacles, those from Israel are likely a deal breaker under the current settler-supported, right-wing, and apartheid government of Benjamin Netanyahu"
Saudi's high demands
Saudi Arabia and Israel are reported to be interested in cooperating on security and intelligence matters in an effort to blunt the perceived threat from Iran. Saudi Arabia opened its airspace in August 2022 to all air carriers, including Israel’s.
Just a few days ago, an Israeli delegation attended a UNESCO meeting in Riyadh, indicating the Kingdom’s acceptance of Israel as a normal state in the international community.
At the recent G20 meeting in New Delhi, Saudi Arabia signed a multinational deal involving the United States, India, European countries, the United Arab Emirates and others for a rail network and port connection facilities extending from South Asia to Europe.
There is no question that Israel will be welcome to join the scheme and be an important hub on this trade route that would challenge China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Biden is pushing for a US-brokered Saudi-Israel deal, and Riyadh has taken the opportunity to make some big demands. But if previous normalisations teach us anything, it is that Palestinians are the ones that lose out, writes Richard Silverstein ⬇https://t.co/zdgAd4LvnH— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) September 16, 2023
Nevertheless, Riyadh appears to have outlined some difficult conditions before it will accommodate the Biden administration’s wish to join the so-called Abraham Accords of 2020.
These conditions include three specific demands from the United States: security guarantees, lifting restrictions on advanced weapons supplies, and help in building a civilian nuclear program.
From Israel, Saudi Arabia is asking that it accommodate Palestinian demands. While the demands from the United States run into serious congressional obstacles, those from Israel are likely a deal breaker under the current settler-supported, right-wing, and apartheid government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
The trouble with Congress
On the face of it, the Biden administration seems amenable to accommodating Saudi demands. Long gone is President Biden’s threat when he was a presidential candidate to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Since his visit to the Kingdom in July 2022, Biden has kissed and made up with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), the man the CIA said ordered the killing.
Among other things, the Biden administration approved weapons sales to the Kingdom worth $3 billion following the president’s visit.
But Biden’s wishes are most likely to run into congressional headwinds, if not opposition, because of Saudi Arabia’s past policies and behaviour. Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced legislation earlier this year that ties security assistance to Riyadh’s human rights record. Congress has also been critical of the Saudi war in Yemen and MbS’ culpability in the Khashoggi killing.
"Owing to its centrality to the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia cannot just abandon what has for decades been an essential tenet of its legitimacy, among both Arabs and Muslims"
But what most angers members of Congress today is Saudi Arabia’s ignoring American wishes on oil production. Cuts over the last few months have raised the price of the strategic commodity and helped Russia’s economy as it wages its war on Ukraine.
Additionally, Saudi Arabia has disregarded US calls to condemn Russia for this war and has helped it avoid international sanctions.
On the other hand, Republicans are likely to oppose Saudi demands because of their overwhelming and adamant support of Israel—of course in addition to that by Democrats.
No matter how friendly the Kingdom may be to the United States, Republicans are unlikely to want to approve Riyadh’s open-ended relation with Washington, especially if it included a nuclear programme.
Analysis: While Saudi demands for US weapons and nuclear energy are real, Riyadh is also likely testing the water to see what's possible in Washington as the costs of normalising ties with Israel still far outweigh the benefits— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) July 11, 2023
✍️ @GiorgioCafiero https://t.co/KD4AaKUNPO
Modifying the Arab Peace Initiative
So far, Saudi Arabia has insisted that normalisation with Israel will have to wait until the latter agrees to seriously address the demands of Palestinians for an independent state. In reality, however, Riyadh’s insistence relates to the political recognition since functional cooperation, such as in those matters mentioned above, is progressing apace.
Indeed, owing to its centrality to the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia cannot just abandon what has for decades been an essential tenet of its legitimacy, among both Arabs and Muslims.
But what could be in contention is the extent to which Riyadh will veer away from its own Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002 around which it rallied the Arab and Muslim worlds.
In other words, to realise its other wishes from the United States—security guarantees, civilian nuclear program, and advanced weapons—Riyadh may compromise on some of API’s demands, such as that for an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, return of refugees, and complete Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, borders.
To be sure, the Palestinian Authority seems to agree to serious modification of the demands of the API.
A Palestinian delegation visited Riyadh in early September and proposed conditions in exchange for accepting Saudi-Israeli normalisation that merely included a freeze on Israeli settlements, controlling more of Area C of the occupied West Bank, an annual $200 million stipend to the PA, and resumption of peace negotiations.
If anything, these are a far cry from the API and may constitute elements of a deal that Saudi Arabia may be interested in negotiating now that Palestinian leadership is amenable to them.
An Israeli veto
Even this watered-down list of demands that Saudi Arabia may hide behind is unlikely to be accepted by Israel’s rightwing government. The December 2022 program of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government made settlement building and expansion a top priority.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich—heading the Religious Zionism Party—and his colleague and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir—leader of the Jewish Power Party—are categorically opposed to any freeze on settlement building and territorial compromises.
They hold Netanyahu, the government, and policy decisions regarding Palestinians hostage. With Netanyahu trying to quash his legal troubles and avoid prison, it is not likely that he would jeopardise the collapse of a government he formed to help him do just that.
"For all intents and purposes, Saudi Arabia has already normalised functional relations with Israel. What is awaited is the Kingdom's political recognition"
No agreement any time soon
For all intents and purposes, Saudi Arabia has already normalised functional relations with Israel. What is awaited is the Kingdom’s political recognition, which requires difficult compromises and serious work on the part of the mediating Biden administration.
But there should be no expectation that this development will take place soon, even if Riyadh modifies what it sees to be acceptable regarding Palestine. Indeed, the determining factor is likely to be a combination of two conditions.
The first is the Biden administration’s ability to cajole Congress to look at Saudi Arabia beyond Mohammed bin Salman, and the second is the Israeli government’s willingness to ignore its religious nationalist agenda to control the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
Dr. Imad K. Harb is Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.