Israel and Saudi Arabia have quietly been making peace for the past several years. It began with intelligence sharing in response to the Iranian threat and has expanded to commerce and trade. Neither country appears in a big hurry to accelerate the process despite optimistic talk in Israel. One thing holding things back is what it means for the Palestinians and the Americans.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says normalization would “effectively end the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, says not until the Palestinians get their own state with east Jerusalem as the capital.
At least that’s what he says. To which Bibi emphatically says, “No, never.”
Many in Israel and elsewhere are confident that the Saudis aren’t really serious about Palestinian statehood and are unwilling to sacrifice their own interests for it. Like so many of the other moderate Arab leaders who are making peace with Israel, they’ve grown weary of the Palestinians and their inflexible, maximalist demands.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told a Saudi newspaper, “The Palestinian issue will not be an obstacle to peace with Saudi Arabia,” reported i24News. What would the Palestinians get? His government will offer to “improve the Palestinian economy.”
Israel won't give the Saudis, US Palestinian statehood, but no one will push
Netanyahu is unwilling and unable to give Saudis and Americans what they say they want – Palestinian statehood – but in reality, both are willing to settle for much less (no one is seriously consulting the Palestinians). The prime minister can expect to pay a much lower price for normalization, including – probably – a promise not to annex the West Bank (easy, since he already made that deal with the United Arab Emirates), some limitation on settlements, greater economic assistance and mobility for the Palestinians, and some semblance of peace talks.
Both Netanyahu and MBS also have an American problem. They need the United States to broker the deal – and pay for it – but they don’t want President Joe Biden to get the credit because they feel he has dissed them.
Neither can get a White House invitation, though Biden did say he’d see Netanyahu in the US later this year but avoided saying where.
Biden has made Israeli-Saudi normalization a high foreign-policy priority for both political and policy reasons. He’d like to have the bragging rights for 2024, especially among friends of Israel who think he’s been too tough (he hasn’t) on Netanyahu, especially his attempts to end the country’s independent judiciary.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and other top officials have been repeatedly meeting with Israeli, Saudi, Palestinian and other regional officials in an effort to broker a deal.
Biden’s top priority is reversing the kingdom’s growing coziness with China, Russia and Iran, all anxious to fill the big power vacuum left by America’s pivot to Asia. The Saudis know this and are asking a high price, which Bibi will gladly let Uncle Sugar pay.
It’s an old custom. When Netanyahu made peace with the UAE, he reportedly promised to help them get F-35s and other American benefits. I personally witnessed a top Foreign Ministry official ask the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to help get Washington to deliver on a promise that Israeli diplomats had made to an African dictator. And US taxpayers have spent billions underwriting Egypt’s peace with Israel.
No price is too high when spending other people’s money, namely American dollars.
THE SAUDIS are demanding a NATO-type security treaty, complete with Article V mutual-defense guarantees. That’s what it got when Saddam Hussein was at the doorstep in 1990 but now they want it in writing. Plus, they want access to the same kind of weapons and technology Israel gets.
That kind of deal is important to the Saudis because they know something too many Americans ignore: oil wells are not bottomless. And they want the US to build a civilian nuclear-energy program. And Biden doesn’t want them turning to Russia or China for that help.
The oil-gorged kingdom also has abundant uranium. They will want to enrich it themselves, something Washington currently objects to. Any deal must require close US monitoring to make certain enrichment is kept far below weapons grade.
The Biden administration and many on both sides of the aisle in Congress have a high level of distrust toward MBS and hold him responsible for the savage murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. They also recall Saudi vows that if Iran gets the bomb they’ll want one, too.
Specifically, a defense treaty would require two-thirds Senate approval, which is highly unlikely given widespread views of the homicidal prince and the kingdom for their abysmal human-rights record, for their unreliability and for keeping gas prices high at the pumps. Netanyahu, with his diminished standing, would not be an effective lobbyist for the Saudi cause.
Both Netanyahu and MBS are said to be concerned that if the next president is a Republican, that person might be averse to delivering on Biden’s commitments.
There’s also a Saudi succession issue. MBS is the de facto ruler because his ailing father, King Salman, 87, reportedly has Alzheimer’s and succession could be tumultuous since the ruthless heir has made many enemies in his brutal climb to the top.
The Palestinians are the big losers. Few believe MBS is sincere about demanding recognition of Palestinian statehood any more than the signers of the Abraham Accords were.
When Bibi was asked by Bloomberg News what was being said about the Palestinians in his discussions with the Saudis and other Arab leaders, he replied, “A lot less than you think.”
The Palestinian Authority is weak, corrupt and ineffective. Its leader, Mahmoud Abbas is 87, in poor health, in the 18th year of a four-year term and refusing to pick a successor. His maximalist demands on Israel have led many to believe he is more interested in victimhood than statehood.
There is a price for being left out. Once the Saudis make peace with Israel, Palestinians will have lost their remaining leverage. Anger and frustration will only grow as they feel ignored and neglected by both Israel and their Arab brethren. Israelis will be the most convenient targets and the result could be greater violence.
An unintended consequence would be to validate the extremists on both sides of the conflict, Hamas and Iranian proxy terrorists, and hardliners in the Netanyahu government who will press to stiffen their repression and opposition to any concessions to improve quality of life in the West Bank.
Don’t expect to see an Israeli flag flying over an embassy in Riyadh any time soon, but the intelligence and security cooperation will continue to grow and there will be more and more Israeli and Saudi businesspeople traveling between the two countries, and then the ultimate sign of acceptance – tourists.
Peace with Saudi Arabia may end the Arab-Israeli conflict, as Netanyahu has said, and if he has his way it will also end hopes for Palestinian statehood.
The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist, and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.