The Biden administration appears to be pursuing two separate but complementary tracks in the Middle East: continued efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear standoff with Iran and Saudi-Israeli normalization. Both tracks are designed to stabilize the region and potentially even lead to a strategic transformation.
With the hopes for a new nuclear deal stymied by Iran, the administration is now attempting to reach “informal understandings.” Iran would halt uranium enrichment at the 60% level – dangerous, but not yet sufficient for a bomb – and refrain from attacking US targets in the Gulf. The United States, in exchange, would unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian assets, to be used for purchases of food and medical products; and allow Iraq $4 billion to pay for the electric power it buys from Iran.
The Saudi-Israel track is the one with the potential for far-reaching regional change. In reality, it is a multilateral package that would impose major demands on all sides but also provide major benefits. It is the diplomatic version of football’s “Hail Mary” play.
What do the Saudis want in order to normalize ties with Israel?
The Saudis, in exchange for normalization, are demanding that Israel make significant, although as yet unspecified, concessions on the Palestinian issue.
Saudi demands of the US are more specific: a defense treaty; access to essentially unlimited American weapons; and US approval of a civilian Saudi nuclear program.
Given King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s hard-line positions on the Palestinian issue, the Saudis may be considering only partial normalization at this point, pending Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s ascent to the throne. If true, this would undoubtedly limit American and Israeli willingness to accede to the Saudis’ far-reaching demands.
Israel’s concessions to the Palestinians would be significant and encompass the avoidance of measures that would jeopardize a two-state solution. Israel would have to indefinitely postpone West Bank annexation, as well as the establishment of new settlements and the legalization of illegal outposts. It would also transfer some of the territory from Area C in the West Bank now under Israeli control to the Palestinians.
The Biden administration would seek Israel’s acceptance of the Saudi demands, especially on the nuclear issue, and even Israel and AIPAC’s active lobbying in Congress, as a means of gaining approval for what will be a difficult sell.
The Palestinians were expected, at least in the initial American thinking, to once again remain on the sidelines, as they did during the negotiations leading to the Abraham Accords. In exchange for refraining from active interference – their usual modus operandi – the Palestinians were to gain extensive Saudi aid and benefit from the Israeli concessions. To the administration’s surprise, however, the Palestinians may be adopting a different approach this time, seeking to be involved in the process.
The US wishes to put the Iranian nuclear issue to bed, at least until after the 2024 elections, and thereby minimize the dangers that a crisis with Iran would deflect international attention from the war in Ukraine and global competition with China. In addition to full normalization with Israel, the US will likely seek a Saudi commitment to end to the war in Yemen, provide the Palestinians with truly generous aid, and impose significant constraints on the kingdom’s rapidly expanding ties with Beijing.
President Joe Biden is a true friend of Israel – the only president to define himself as a Zionist and to take his children to visit the concentration camps.
Critical American strategic interests notwithstanding, the primary impetus for the recent momentum appears to be Biden’s growing concern that Israel is incapable of extracting itself from two imminent inflection points. These are the demise of the two-state solution with the consequent ramifications for its Jewish and democratic character and the judicial overhaul process, begun by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-right-wing government which threatens Israel’s democratic character.
The practicability of the above package has justifiably met with considerable skepticism. All sides would have to make major concessions and even a watered-down version would likely lead to the collapse of Israel’s coalition and either to the formation of a new and more moderate one or to early elections that would constitute a de facto referendum on the package.
Either outcome would be welcome for an administration that seeks to confront the sides, especially Israel, with the need to make historic decisions. It is unclear, however, how a breakthrough would help Netanyahu achieve his one overriding objective – of forcing an end to the corruption trial that may land him in jail – or whether he has any residual ability to place the needs of the state above his own.
The US, for its part, has not signed a defense treaty with any country since Japan in 1960. To do so with Saudi Arabia, a country that is reviled today by much of the Democratic Party, is a very tall order.
The administration must also take into account that acceding to the Saudi demand will likely lead to demands for similar treaties by Israel and a number of Arab allies, as well as other states around the world. On the upside, a series of bilateral treaties with countries in the Middle East could constitute the basis for the regional security architecture that the US has long sought to establish.
A second critical decision is whether to acquiesce to the demand that Saudi Arabia be allowed a domestic uranium enrichment capability – a critical component of a potential military program in the future. Acquiescing would raise the awkward question of why Iran should be barred from such an enrichment capability if Saudi Arabia is not, and set a dangerous precedent for future proliferators.
Conceivably, a compromise might be found whereby US willingness to grant the Saudis a defense treaty would be contingent on their willingness to forgo enrichment. Should a trade-off such as this prove elusive and the overall package ultimately depends on it, a sufficiently intrusive inspections regime would provide a reasonable compromise that Israel, too, could live with.
Thirdly, US willingness to grant the Saudis access to the most advanced American weapons – such as F-35 aircraft – would make it very difficult to live up to the congressionally-mandated commitment to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME). However, based on past experience, a solution could probably be found by selling the Saudis weapons that are one generation behind those provided to Israel, missing some specific capability, or whose geographic deployment in Saudi Arabia is limited.
Faced with a reinvigorated American-led military alignment, Iran would be the big loser in this scenario. While it is most likely to respond to this strategic setback by exercising greater restraint, a manufactured crisis designed to reset the table by increasing enrichment to the 90% level, cannot be ruled out.
Normalization with Saudi Arabia would constitute a historic transformation in Israel’s strategic circumstances, essentially ending the conflict with the Arab states and at least somewhat containing the remaining belligerents – Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. It would also open up much of the Muslim world to Israel, possibly enabling normalization with Indonesia, Malaysia, and even Pakistan.
An opening with the Palestinians, even if limited, is better than the current stasis, which is leading inexorably to a one-state binational solution. Anything that forces an end to the judicial overhaul (read “wrecking ball”), is more than welcome. The “informal understandings” with Iran on enrichment are far from ideal, but the best of the bad alternatives, and assuming an effective inspection regime can be found for Saudi enrichment, the benefits for Israel could not be clearer.
At this point, all of the above is still very tentative and it is unclear whether Biden is willing to put his full weight and authority behind it. However, senior American officials who recently met with their Saudi counterparts apparently came away sufficiently encouraged to proceed to the next step, an upcoming meeting with Netanyahu’s Strategic Affairs Minister and close confidant, Ron Dermer.
It is still decidedly a long shot, but as David Ben-Gurion famously stated, “Anyone in Israel who doesn’t believe in miracles is not a realist.”
The writer, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is a senior fellow at INSS and the MirYam Institute. He is the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy, as well as Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change and the new Israel and the Cyber Threat: How the Startup Nation Became a Global Superpower. Twitter: @chuck_freilich