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The Case Against an Israeli-Saudi Deal

The United States appears to be seriously probing a Middle East deal that would normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. According to the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and other reporting, U.S. President Joe Biden harbors ambitious hopes that such a deal could lead to a more integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Middle East. Visible moves back up the rumors: in mid-July, the head of Israeli intelligence visited Washington to discuss the potential deal with White House and CIA officials, and later that month, Biden sent Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, to Saudi Arabia to discuss the plan with the kingdom’s de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Biden wants a deal by the end of the year.

In principle, Biden’s vision deserves support. Israel and Saudi Arabia have quietly expanded ties in recent years, but a formal agreement would significantly boost Israel’s long-standing goal to achieve full acceptance in the Arab world and unleash new economic potential in the region. The reported contours of this deal, however, suggest that it would not genuinely advance peace in the Middle East. In fact, it could make things worse.

Riyadh reportedly wants three key sweeteners from Washington: more advanced arms sales, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system; a NATO-like security guarantee; and U.S. assistance for a civilian nuclear program that might enable Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium domestically.

For all the problems that a new weapons deal in a volatile region would entail, the arms sales would probably be the least controversial element of an agreement. Early in his presidency, Biden pledged to scale back arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But he approved new multibillion weapons sales following a trip to Jeddah in the summer of 2022, and at the time, Congress did not stand in the way.

Saudi Arabia’s other two requirements, though, would likely trigger more significant bipartisan pushback from Congress. Washington does not even have a formal mutual defense pact that commits it to defending Israel, let alone any Arab state. The United States cooperates on civilian nuclear programs with other Gulf states, such as the United Arab Emirates, but those agreements do not allow for domestic uranium enrichment. And in the United States, Saudi Arabia has never been the most popular U.S. partner. Riyadh’s reputation as a harshly authoritarian regime out of step with American values has only sharpened over the course of its brutal seven-year intervention in Yemen’s civil war and after its savage 2018 murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Biden may believe that a push for peace in the region—one that supports Palestinians and tames Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—would be worth such a high price from the United States. Or he may believe that in the run-up to his 2024 reelection campaign, he needs a big Middle East win to vindicate what has otherwise been a perplexing shift: as a presidential candidate in 2020, Biden vowed to change U.S. policy and make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” but last July found him fist-bumping the crown prince. Or he may feel that the deal will benefit the United States by blunting Iran’s influence and blocking China’s efforts to shift the balance of power in the region in its favor.

Administration officials must have high hopes for a deal if they are pushing it in the face of almost certain domestic opposition and uncomfortable compromises on U.S. values. None of the supposed benefits, however, are likely to flow from this deal as it has been reported. In fact, the Middle East is not as amenable as it once was to such deals. The notion that an Israeli-Saudi agreement could substantially change the region reveals that the Biden administration is working from an outdated playbook in which grand, splashy accords and televised handshakes shift the Middle East for good. This particular deal is not just a long-shot gambit. It could also be dangerous—both for the region and for the United States.


In an interview in The New Yorker in early August, Friedman suggested that an Israeli-Saudi deal could be a “twofer,” incentivizing Netanyahu to abandon his hard-right coalition for centrist allies and advancing a two-state solution. Riyadh will certainly expect some substantive concessions from Israel on the Palestinian front to entertain a deal. But expectations that a deal could truly benefit Palestinians are divorced from reality.

Netanyahu has not demonstrated any serious interest in tangible steps to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution. He has always argued that peace with the Arab world arises from Israeli strength, not from its compromises. In an early August interview with Bloomberg, Netanyahu touted the potential accord as “a pivot of history” but then openly ridiculed the idea that he would consider significant concessions to Palestinians: “Is that what’s being said in discreet negotiations? It’s a lot less than you think. I’m not willing to give anything that will endanger Israel’s security.” He called the Palestinian issue no more than a “checkbox” and reiterated his opposition to a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu may assume that he can strike a deal with Riyadh with only cosmetic progress for the Palestinians. But it is not a given that this kind of agreement would hold. Riyadh is already testing Netanyahu’s resolve. On August 12, Saudi Arabia tapped its ambassador to Jordan to serve as its nonresident envoy to the Palestinian Authority and as its consul general in Jerusalem as well, thereby signaling its continued support for a Palestinian state. Israel’s foreign minister, however, said Israel would not authorize the opening of a Saudi consulate in Jerusalem; Israel opposes any diplomatic representation for Palestinians in the city.

The Times of Israel and other outlets have reported that as part of a deal, Biden—as well as Democratic Senators such as Chris Van Hollen, of Maryland, and Tim Kaine, of Virginia—would expect Israel to abandon further annexation plans for the West Bank, dismantle illegal outposts, freeze settlement construction, and hand over some areas in the West Bank still controlled by Israel to the Palestinians. It is unreasonable to expect Netanyahu’s exceedingly right-wing political coalition to agree to such terms. Some of his allies have already expressed their opposition to making such concessions to the Palestinians.

The Biden administration may believe that a deal could incentivize Netanyahu to moderate his position on the Palestinians, ditch his current coalition, and form a new government with more centrist parties. But centrist Israeli politicians do not trust Netanyahu; in late July and again in mid-August, opposition leader Yair Lapid stated that he has no intention of joining a Netanyahu government. It also is improbable that Netanyahu would risk holding a new election while his government seeks to limit the independence of Israel’s judiciary, an aim that helps Netanyahu in his own corruption cases. In reality, a deal with Saudi Arabia could help relieve political pressure on Netanyahu after months of unprecedented public protests. A push for an Israeli-Saudi deal would not only be unlikely to yield serious gains for the Palestinians; it could also risk propping up the embattled Israeli prime minister and weaken the popular-democracy movement within the country.


The United States may also ask Saudi Arabia for commitments that bind Riyadh closer to Washington. According to The Wall Street Journal, Biden is expected to request that Saudi Arabia block China from establishing a military base in the Gulf, limit its use of Huawei technology, and price its oil in dollars rather than in renminbi. But it is far-fetched to hope that a normalization deal could move Saudi Arabia squarely back into Washington’s corner and out of China’s orbit.

China’s investment in Middle East infrastructure and technology, as well as its trade with the region and its oil imports, has soared over the past decade. Saudi Arabia, in turn, is increasingly recognizing China’s value as a strategic partner. While China’s ties to the region remain largely economic and the United States continues to dominate it militarily, Riyadh has demonstrated a growing interest in Chinese military technologies, particularly drones and missiles. China’s lack of interest in meddling in Middle Eastern countries’ domestic affairs or scrutinizing their human-rights records also makes it an attractive partner for the Saudis.

Even if Biden can get Riyadh to accommodate specific American requests, he cannot expect to erode Saudi Arabia’s robust and expanding relationship with China. Nor are the Saudis likely to ditch their recent initiatives to ease tensions with Iran. Hopes that an Israel-Saudi normalization agreement could shore up the region’s opposition to Iran run counter to current dynamics. In April 2023, Beijing brokered an Iranian-Saudi agreement to restore diplomatic relations after a seven-year rift. Afterward, the two governments reopened embassies and resumed official visits.

The rapprochement may prove fragile. But there is still a strong underlying motive for Riyadh to work more closely with Tehran. Any escalation of tensions between Iran and the United States, or Israel, could put Saudi Arabia in Iran’s cross hairs. It already has: following the U.S. withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement in 2018, Iranian-backed militants attacked Saudi oil facilities. Saudi Arabia recognizes that solidifying relations with Iran could help protect it from future attacks, and the move would match a wider pattern of de-escalation across the region. The détente with Iran and the relationship with China are far too important for the Saudis to abandon in favor of a more monogamous alliance with the United States.


A key pillar of the National Security Strategy that Biden released in October of 2022 is the idea that U.S. partners in the Middle East must do more so that the United States can do less, reducing the risk of costly military interventions. As the document explained, “A more integrated Middle East that empowers our allies and partners will advance regional peace and prosperity, while reducing the resource demands the region makes on the United States over the long term.”

The proposed Israeli-Saudi deal seems to turn that strategy on its head, risking deeper U.S. entanglements and security commitments to a partner with a history of erratic and dangerous regional meddling. It also appears to assume that if the United States just provides the right assurances, partners will fall in line and Washington will return to its rightful place as the Middle East’s power broker. But this hope is almost sure to be dashed. Increasingly assertive regional powers no longer want to play second fiddle to Washington. They are pursuing their own interests more aggressively, which may or may not align with those of the United States.

The potential deal also presumes a kind of Israeli partner that may no longer exist. For decades, U.S. leaders assumed that if Israel were offered the right incentives—with acceptance by the Arab world high on the list—it would compromise by making territorial concessions for peace. That formula worked in the Camp David peace accords with Egypt more than 40 years ago, but it is unlikely to work today. Grand regional deals that do not take the changed realities of Israeli domestic politics into account are out of touch and may even bolster political extremists in the country, who are already gaining ground.

The Saudi deal that Biden appears to be considering would demand a high price, probably without yielding real benefits to his legacy. It is unlikely to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations, contain China or Iran, or reduce regional conflict. Israel and Saudi Arabia may well normalize relations on their own timetable, given their mutual interests in doing so. Now is not the time to push them. The Biden administration should give its plan for a normalization deal a second look; its reported contours only reveal that Washington has profound blind spots when it comes to a changing Middle East.

Source: foreignaffairs