It was just the ticket, cynics noted. As the country suffered a searing crisis over the government’s judicial reform – and the protests against it – attention was momentarily sidetracked to a vision of peace in the Middle East.
According to this vision, Israel would help bring everyone together – courtesy of a railway that could eventually link the Jewish state with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Call it a (rail)road map for peace.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the government’s approval of the “One Israel” project, a high-speed train from North to South.
“In the future,” he said, “we will be able to transport cargoes of goods by train from Eilat to our ports in the Mediterranean Sea, and we will also be able to connect Israel by train to Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula. We are working on that too.”
A trans-Mideast railroad: Can it be done?
The idea of a trans-Mideast railroad, including a cross-country high-speed track within Israel, is not new. The NIS 100 billion One Israel project sounded like it had branched off from a plan festively announced by the Netanyahu government in 2012. The talk then was of a Red-Med project to be funded by China. This raised concerns of former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, among others, that it would give the People’s Republic too much control over strategic Israeli assets and also anger the US.
Relations between the US and China, particularly under the Biden administration, have deteriorated even further since then. It’s a balancing act. Care must be taken to ensure that China does not dominate major Israeli infrastructure – keeping in mind that there is no such thing as a private business in China, the Beijing regime ultimately has control. But Israel also needs to ensure that it maintains its right to follow its own interests, not subjugated to American desires and demands. Talk of Washington frowning on the upcoming visit by Netanyahu to China is absurd given that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen both recently traveled there.
Still, it was the trip by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to Jeddah that grabbed the attention last week. Sullivan, accompanied by White House Middle East envoy Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein, the senior adviser for energy and infrastructure, met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and other top Saudi officials. A White House statement said they discussed “bilateral and regional matters, including initiatives to advance a common vision for a more peaceful, secure, prosperous, and stable Middle East region interconnected with the world.”
The China and Saudi Arabia issues are related. Strengthening the Saudi Royal Kingdom could help pull it away from the Chinese Middle Kingdom, whose growing influence in the Middle East gives Biden a headache – witness the Chinese-brokered normalization deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
It is hard to know what should be read between the lines of a piece last week by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. He is so close to Biden he occasionally seems to serve as a mouthpiece and he also has his own agenda when it comes to Netanyahu and Israel. The borders between fact and wishful thinking are blurred.
According to Friedman, a Saudi-Israeli deal “could (and should) involve” an Israeli promise never to annex the West Bank (Judea and Samaria); Israeli commitments not to establish any more settlements, expand existing Jewish communities, or legalize illegal outposts; and the transfer of some Palestinian-populated land in Area C to Palestinian Authority control.
It’s reminiscent of Israel’s choice to pursue the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain in 2020 at the cost of extending sovereignty over Judea, Samaria, and the Jordan Valley, which might have been possible under the Trump administration, but which Biden has consistently opposed.
Or as Friedman put it brashly: “If the United States forges a security alliance with Saudi Arabia – on the conditions that it normalize relations with Israel and that Israel make meaningful concessions to the Palestinians – Netanyahu’s ruling coalition of Jewish supremacists and religious extremists would have to answer this question: You can annex the West Bank, or you can have peace with Saudi Arabia and the whole Muslim world, but you can’t have both, so which will it be?”
Since the far-right-wing flank of the coalition – even without the epithets – is unlikely to agree to major concessions to the Palestinians, some pundits are predicting that this would give Netanyahu the chance to dump them and bring in political moderates like National Unity party leaders Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar – although making peace between Gantz, Sa’ar, and Netanyahu might be harder than reaching a deal with the Saudis and/or the Palestinians.
Incidentally, former MK Michael Oren, writing in Israel Hayom, noted that the legislation canceling the reasonableness standard paves the way for the return of Shas leader Arye Deri to the cabinet with his pragmatic views on foreign policy that could act as a counterweight to Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, for example.
MORE THAN the Saudis have stipulations regarding Israel, it seems they have certain demands of the US. Friedman says Riyadh is seeking a NATO-like security treaty that would obligate the US to come to its defense if it were attacked; a US-backed civil nuclear program; and the ability to purchase advanced US weapons, such as missile defense systems, to counter Iranian missiles.
In exchange, the US wants the Saudis to offer a significant aid deal to the PA in the West Bank.
And, Friedman wrote, “curtailing Saudi-China relations – would be a game changer for the Middle East... It would be a significant Biden foreign policy legacy.”
Friedman correctly stressed that such a deal could take months to negotiate and is still “a long shot, at best.”
He is correct on another – hugely important – point: “Truth be told, the Palestinian Authority is in no position to engage in peace talks with Israel today. It’s a mess.”
And it’s not just the PA that is a shambles. As my colleague Khaled Abu Toameh noted, massive demonstrations took place in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip this week protesting the high cost of living and fuel shortages. A “national unity” conference in Egypt on Sunday aimed at bringing the PA and Hamas together ended without even a joint statement. And there were clashes between armed members of the PA, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas in Jenin. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, more than 10 Palestinians were killed in fighting between Fatah and Islamists in the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp. Palestinians killing each other apparently is not a major news story if Israel can’t be blamed.
Although Riyadh and Jerusalem don’t have diplomatic ties, it’s no secret that there is close cooperation in the fields of technology, intelligence, and security, particularly regarding the Iranian threat. There are even islands of peace: Tiran and Sanafir. Israel gave the islands back to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace agreement, and Egypt last year (with Israeli approval) transferred them back to Saudi Arabia, which previously held them. Riyadh committing to observe the relevant clauses of the peace agreement – that the islands remain demilitarized zones and to ensure free passage in the narrow Straits of Tiran – signifies some degree of recognition by Saudi Arabia of Israel.
While Saudi Arabia did not actively participate in the Abraham Accords, it was clearly on board with their implementation. The Abraham Accords proved that Israel could create treaties with the Arab world without first reaching an ever-elusive peace deal with the Palestinians. And it would be in Israel’s best interests to keep the two diplomatic tracks unlinked.
Biden is in desperate need of a foreign policy coup ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Netanyahu could certainly do with some peace (treaty) and quiet after the turmoil over the judicial reform legislation. But he will have to carefully weigh the short-term political and long-term security costs. Better the right track than the fast track in the wrong direction.
The peace train is not ready to leave the station, but that doesn’t mean it has been derailed.