Mondoweiss / October 6, 2023
The Biden administration has shifted into high gear to promote a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. As with past Abraham Accord agreements, it is simply a way to sell a massive military upgrade as a “peace deal”.
The United States has shifted into high gear in its efforts to promote a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Numerous U.S. officials are planning to travel to the region for talks on the proposed deal.
This gives the impression that the prospects for the big, sweeping foreign policy “triumph” that U.S. President Joe Biden seems to be chasing is coming about. Indeed, there have been some changes that would improve the chances of a deal coming about. But, as we shall see, the major impediments remain in place.
What has changed ?
Saudi Arabia seems to have concluded that its maximal requests are unrealistic and out of reach, whether during the Biden administration or any other. Consequently, they seem to be lowering their price for a normalization deal, and it has brought an eager and enthusiastic response from Washington.
According to a report in Reuters, Saudi Arabia has signaled that it is willing to sign a standard nuclear agreement with the United States, called a “123 Agreement.” This is a legally binding agreement that provides a good deal of U.S. assistance in developing a civilian nuclear power program and also makes it very difficult for any U.S. materials or assistance to be used for nuclear weapons proliferation. The Saudis had previously balked at such an agreement, which had rendered U.S. assistance on a civilian nuclear program out of bounds.
The Saudis have also clearly shown that they are willing to throw the Palestinians almost completely under the bus for the sake of a defense pact with the United States. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) told FOX News that. “We hope that will reach a place, that it will ease the life of the Palestinians.” That’s quite a retreat from the Arab Peace Initiative that Saudi Arabia put on the table more than two decades ago which offered full normalization with Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state with a shared Jerusalem as the capital of two states and a solution for the Palestinian refugees in accordance with United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194.
The Saudi focus today is more immediate. One of the key motivations for Saudi Arabia—not only for this initiative but for many Saudi decisions of the past few years—is their disappointment with the United States over Donald Trump’s refusal to retaliate against Iran on the Saudis’ behalf after a Houthi attack on Saudi oil refineries in September 2019. Trump had been talking tough about attacking Iran, raising Saudi expectations. Since that incident, the Saudis have come to mistrust the long-standing basis of the U.S.-Saudi relationship of Saudi oil for U.S. military support.
In that context, we can better understand the nonsense explanation National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan gave for Biden’s seemingly inexplicable passion to get this deal done. It’s a zeal that exceeds that of the parties who will benefit—Israel and Saudi Arabia—by far, even though the United States stands to gain little from the agreement.
Sullivan, speaking at an Atlantic Council event, gave a rationale for the Biden administration’s massive effort: “So what are we trying to do with Saudi and Israel? Reinforce, deepen and sustain that (referring to the diminished need for U.S. attention to the Middle East region) out in the future, because we believe that regional integration and normalization between significant countries in the Middle East can create a greater and more stable foundation as we go forward.”
The explanation is absurd on its face. Israel and Saudi Arabia already cooperate on military matters. That is so true that the neoconservative Jonathan Schanzer of the pro-war and Orwellian-named Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, was cited by Jewish Insider as noting that “contacts between Saudi Arabia and Israel in the areas of security, intelligence, technology and more have been known for years.” Schanzer is right; Israeli-Saudi cooperation has been an open secret for a very long time.
The Biden administration is trying to find a way to renew the United States’ influence in the Middle East without increasing its presence there.
In fact, the proposed pact—including both Israeli-Saudi normalization and a huge upgrade in American weaponry in Saudi hands—will enflame regional tensions. Iran can’t see such a development as anything but an existential threat. And the rest of the region will see it as escalating Saudi Arabia’s already considerable regional influence to the point of hegemony. That hegemony will be backed by two countries that have wreaked great havoc in the region, the U.S. and Israel. All of this promises the precise opposite of the “more stable foundation” Sullivan spoke of.
What Sullivan is actually saying is that the Biden administration is trying to find a way to renew the United States’ influence in the Middle East without increasing its presence there and the amount of attention the U.S. has to spend on it. The administration’s focus on China, which has grown after China brokered the deal that restored relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia and hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Beijing, has prompted it to work to reverse the impression that the so-called “pivot to Asia” has reduced American interest in the Middle East. That is achieved, in their view, by strengthening Saudi Arabia and deepening its military partnership with Israel.
Ultimately, the normalization deal is not all that important in military terms for either Saudi Arabia or Israel. But for Israel it carries enormous diplomatic meaning as it would make it much easier for more Arab states to join the Abraham Accords. For the Saudis, this is all about the defense pact with the United States and the weapons it could buy as a result of the agreement. The normalization deal, for them and for the Biden administration, is simply a way to sell this massive military upgrade as a “peace deal.”
The defense agreements
On Wednesday, Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Peter Welch (D-VT) published a letter to Biden co-signed by 16 of their Democratic Senate colleagues stating their skepticism of the rumored conditions of the Israel-Saudi pact. The letter was more powerful than one might have expected from Democrats, even though the twenty who signed were among the relatively progressive senators. The letter focused on the potential defense agreements and on the Palestinians.
On the defense agreements, there was a clear concern that Saudi Arabia is not a trustworthy country to enter into such an agreement with. The senators described Saudi Arabia as “an authoritarian regime which regularly undermines U.S. interests in the region, has a deeply concerning human rights record, and has pursued an aggressive and reckless foreign policy agenda.” All very true, (and it can be applied to Israel as well) and it only begins to scratch the surface of what a bad idea a defense agreement with Saudi Arabia would be.
MBS has apparently backed away from the idea of a NATO-like treaty that would treat any attack on Saudi Arabia as an attack on the U.S. Instead, he is seeking a lesser agreement and Major Non-NATO Ally Status. Israel and seventeen other countries have that status, which gives them access to more U.S. weapons, allows for American weapons to be stored in the country, and other sorts of defense trade and security cooperation. That status, which does not require congressional approval, could be combined with a security arrangement similar to that the U.S. has with Bahrain, which allows for a U.S. naval fleet to be stationed there and other kinds of military cooperation which, again, does not require congressional approval.
While Bahrain, like Saudi Arabia, has a brutal human rights record, it does not come close to the Saudis in its international activity. As such, there is much less risk the U.S. would be drawn into an international conflict by its cooperation with Bahrain. Saudi Arabia carries a much greater risk.
From the American point of view, such a pact brings nothing. The U.S.-Saudi relationship is already such that Washington takes great interest in, and often supports, Saudi activities, as our complicity in the Yemen War—a complicity which was never required by any sort of agreement but was entirely a policy choice—demonstrates. It simply enhances the existing relationship in a way that might seem like the U.S. is investing in the Middle East without engaging on the ground but changes nothing.
Israel is also considering a defense pact with the United States for the first time.
Israel is also considering a defense pact with the United States for the first time. Historically, Israeli military leaders have resisted any formal defense commitments by or with the United States for fear that it would limit their freedom of action. But with the United States demonstrating on a daily basis how little the White House and State Department care about the Palestinians and the fact that the U.S. is willing to at least consider such an agreement with the Saudis implying that they might not have to worry as much about U.S. constraints, the Israelis are weighing their long term concerns about American support.
Israeli leaders know that support in the U.S., both in the American Jewish community and the broader American citizenry, is waning. A defense pact would help insulate Israel against public pressure to condition, suspend, or even, someday, end military aid to Israel.
The letter sent by the twenty Democrats made some very specific asks about the Palestinians. They called for: “among other measures, a commitment by Israel not to annex any or all of the West Bank; to halt settlement construction and expansion; to dismantle illegal outposts (including those that have been retroactively ‘legalized’); and to allow the natural growth of Palestinian towns, cities and population centers and the ability to travel without interference between and among contiguous Palestinian areas.”
Moderate as those conditions are, they go much farther than Mahmoud Abbas did when he discussed what he would need for the Palestinian Authority to keep quiet if the Saudis concluded their normalization deal. Abbas only asked that the Saudis back a push for Palestine to be admitted to full United Nations membership, that Israel agree to the U.S. reopening their consulate in Jerusalem, which had been the main point of contact between the PA and Washington; and that some small parts of Area C in the West Bank (which is under full Israeli control) be re-designated as Area B (which means Israeli security control and PA administration).
The fact that U.S. senators are going much further in their demands for the Palestinians than the PA president and PLO Chairman speaks volumes about the dearth of Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. Still, the senators should be commended for their clarity and for having at least some sort of standard for what Palestinians should be able to expect, even if it falls well short of anything remotely just.
The nuclear issue would seem to be blunted for the moment if Saudi Arabia is willing to agree to the sort of close monitoring and stringent standards a Section 123 Agreement would entail. MBS’ statement that Saudi Arabia would demand a nuclear weapon if Iran gets one is not new and changes nothing about the current tense posture over this issue. But the defense pact should be hugely problematic for U.S. lawmakers. And if the Biden administration presses for any of the conditions the Democratic senators laid out, it would be a non-starter for Israel.
So, if those things remain problems, this deal can’t happen. That’s probably why at least one Israeli academic thinks that it is more likely that there will just be a series of small steps that gradually open the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel. That is probably correct, but that won’t please Biden, who believes, mistakenly, that a dramatic signing of a normalization agreement would boost his disturbingly poor electoral chances in 2024.
Even if it was possible for the U.S. to wrangle the concessions the senators ask for out of Israel—and it’s not—it would not do the Palestinians much good. A normalization agreement with the Saudis would both open the floodgates for the rest of the Arab world and remove the last bit of leverage the Palestinians have. Inevitably, and probably over an extended period of time, Israel would reclaim any crumbs it gave the Palestinians, under one pretense or another, just as it did with the Oslo Accords.
That’s the major danger of this proposed agreement for the Palestinians, but it’s far from the only danger. On top of the fact that it would inevitably inflame tensions with Iran, such a deal would only serve to increase Saudi regional adventurism, backed now by the military might of Israel, even if the United States distanced itself. It would lead to the spread of authoritarianism and militant violence in a region already dealing with massive amounts of both.
Thus, even aside from the humanitarian and human rights concerns, which are enormous, this effort is a major danger to regional stability and to U.S. interests. Yet, it is being pressed by the Biden administration.
The Saudi willingness to compromise on its maximalist demands makes a deal somewhat more likely. It will be even more likely if Biden is willing to bypass Congress to reach an agreement, which is within his power, depending on the agreement’s terms. That is something he has been reluctant to do in other regards, but he might not be so careful here.
The recent announcements that Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) will be leading a bipartisan delegation to Saudi Arabia and Israel to push the normalization deal forward and that this will be followed soon after by a trip to both countries from Secretary of State Antony Blinken reflects the extent of the American effort. It also demonstrates a concern that if Congress does need to be part of the process, Democratic opposition could be blunted by Republican support for a deal despite the fact that Republicans are usually loathe to give Democrats, especially Biden, a victory. As usual, sacrificing national interests on the altar of Middle East henchmen like MBS and Benjamin Netanyahu transcends the usual partisan rancor in Washington.
Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics