Netanyahu, Biden and the Israeli-Saudi peace line - analysis

The project didn’t just give Netanyahu a moment to wax on about national unity, it also provided him a platform by which he could push back at critics who have accused him of destroying the country.

 Netanyahu speaks at the cabinet meeting on July 17, 2023. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SETUP)
Netanyahu speaks at the cabinet meeting on July 17, 2023.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SETUP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waved a visionary olive branch of peace with his talk Sunday of a Middle East railway from Jerusalem to Riyadh.

He did so in a region boiling over with heat and seared by ethnic and religious animosities. He offered it to a nation wracked by existential divisions.

It was a vision that had an antidote for everyone, including the government politicians who are battling flagging public support.

For more than 30 weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to protest Netanyahu’s judicial reform plan, which he says will strengthen Israeli democracy and which his opponents fear will transform Israel into a dictatorship.

The extreme rift has even led to some speculation that the nation is on the cusp of a civil war. The divisions were on sharp display last week with activists lighting protest bonfires on major national arteries, as the Knesset passed the first leg of the judicial overhaul plan.

 THE NEWEST Saudi lobbyist is the prime minister of Israel, says the writer.  (credit: REUTERS)
THE NEWEST Saudi lobbyist is the prime minister of Israel, says the writer. (credit: REUTERS)

The revolutionary new railway line

Then at a moment when the nation seemed most divided, Netanyahu, Likud Transportation Minister Miri Regev, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the National Religious Party, started the week by talking about uniting the nation through a revolutionary railway line aptly named “One Israel.”

If the government can’t unite the nation’s heart, it can at least bring everyone closer by embarking on a plan to “connect Israel” to “everyone’s future,” a future in which a train can bring Israelis from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat in just two hours.

To put that in perspective, due to frequent and heavy traffic jams, it can take longer than two hours to drive just from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The project, which has environmental and economic bonuses, didn’t just give Netanyahu a moment to wax on about national unity. It also provided him a platform by which he could push back at critics who have accused him of destroying the country to serve his own political interests.

From an optical perspective, only a fully functional government with the public’s best interest at heart could embark on such an ambitious project.

In unveiling the plan, Netanyahu spoke of its revolutionary nature, a turning point in the history of Israeli transpiration, akin to the ones he already led in developing natural gas and transforming the nation into a market economy.

Then he added an additional level, presenting this as a plan not only for domestic salvation, but also as one with the potential for regional transformation.

He linked it to the increasing media and diplomatic chatter about a potential Israeli-Saudi deal, by noting that this would also be the first leg of a regional rail line. Cargo could go from Haifa on the Mediterranean Sea, through Jordan, onward to Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea.

Such a plan first put forward by former transportation minister Israel Katz, now the energy minister, has been under discussion for years.

It would use the promise of using railways to help transform the region into an economic powerhouse, using the lure of propensity to brush away long-standing hatreds and to marginalize the significance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A ticket from Jerusalem to Riyadh is years away, even in the most optimal circumstances. It was easy for Netanyahu to mention it here, because it gave the impression that Israeli-Saudi normalization was moving forward even at a moment when such a deal still seems highly improbable.

A hefty price for the United States to pay

For an Israeli-Saudi deal to happen, the US has to pay a hefty price or Israel would have to make a major concession to the Palestinians. The less Israel can give the Palestinians, the more the weight for such an agreement falls onto the US.

Regarding such an agreement, The New York Times has reported that the Saudis are demanding a security pact with the US, akin to a NATO-type alliance, as well as Washington support for a civilian nuclear program and sophisticated anti-missile defense systems.

The price tag is so high, that despite bipartisan conceptual support for a deal, it’s unclear whether such an agreement could pass Congress.

Biden is expected to insist in return that Saudi-Arabia normalize ties with Israel.

In doing so, as NY Columnist Thomas Friedman pointed out, the US president would inevitably give a boost to Netanyahu, an Israeli leader Biden has distanced himself from due to his sharp opposition to the prime minister’s judicial overhaul plan.

Biden has little choice here if he is legacy shopping in the Middle East. Former US president Donald Trump touted his ability to make the “Deal of the Century” by finalizing a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, only to leave office having failed to do so.

The Biden administration has mostly shelved his peace map, the international community never adopted it, and the Palestinians outright rejected it.

Time, however, has clarified the sustaining power of Trump’s footprint in the peace process through the Abraham Accords, which he brokered. The agreement of four Arab countries to normalize ties with Israel, despite the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace, breathed life into Netanyahu’s long-held belief that Israel must first forge a relationship with Arab states before finalizing an arrangement with the Palestinians.

Now, it’s the only game in town. If Biden wants a win in the Middle East prior to the 2024 elections, he has to purchase a ticket on the train whose tracks lead to Riyadh, assuming he has congressional backing.

The possibility of a win here, particularly as Iran and China seek to strengthen their ties with Saudi Arabia, far outweighs any concerns about Israeli democracy, particularly when Saudi Arabia falls far behind the Jewish state on that score. It would also give Biden’s re-election campaign a boost, though his tenure in power is not necessarily dependent on it.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, can’t afford to walk away from a Saudi deal, which would for him be one of his crowning achievements and one which he has long sought.

Depending on the demands of such an agreement, however, he also might not be able to finalize the deal. This is particularly true if Netanyahu is asked to meet some of the gestures to the Palestinians laid out in Friedman’s article, such as promising never to apply sovereignty to West Bank settlements.

He can agree to an additional delay, but he would lose his coalition were he to make such a pledge.

The trick here will be to find a gesture to the Palestinians that Netanyahu can meet while keeping his coalition intact, given its many members who dismiss the idea of Palestinian statehood and want to annex all of Area C of the West Bank.

The possibility of a deal, therefore, appears so slim that Channel 11 on Sunday night floated the idea of a two-phased Israeli-Saudi process, in which the two countries would have low-level diplomatic ties without full-fledged normalization.

Or Netanyahu could switch gears. This is particularly true now that he has secured passage of legislation that narrows the court’s ability to tackle governmental corruption by eliminating the reasonableness clause.

Netanyahu could, Friedman speculated, use the possibility of a Saudi deal to swap out the more extreme elements of his coalition with more moderate ones.

Moderate opposition politicians opposed to joining Netanyahu might sing a different tune once an agreement is actually on the table.

It is nice to speculate about how a Saudi peace deal might also put a monkey wrench in Israel’s judicial reform process. But if Netanyahu is lucky, he won’t have to buy a ticket on this train. Washington will purchase one for him, and all he’ll have to do is go along for the ride.