The U.S.-Saudi-Israel Deal: An Unholy Trinity of Incompatible Interests

A ‘win-win-win’ deal for the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel will be far from simple. From Republican and Democratic hostility towards the Saudis to Riyadh’s sky-high price for normalization with Israel, it’s not even clear it’s feasible

By Alon Pinkas, HAARETZ

Let’s start with the bottom line: curb your exaggerated enthusiasm. As enticing and lucrative as “The United States meditated an Israeli-Saudi peace agreement” sounds – and it does – political realities make it impossible and unattainable under current conditions.

Now let’s get heretical and consider the following premise: Such a deal would be very good to have, even dramatic, but it would not be transformational for any of the sides in this particular triangle. In fact, the costs incurred may outweigh the potential effectiveness.

From 40,000 feet, geopolitics makes a lot of sense. You are [mis]led to believe that you have a broad and clear perspective. So, from 40,000 feet, a transactional deal between the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel seems like a no-brainer, a pact that serves the mutual interests of all three parties.

But 40,000 feet will always fail to provide the necessary high-resolution picture, fail to reveal and integrate all the complexities and exorbitant costs of such a deal. This is where the triangle might collapse under the weight of incompatible interests, an unwillingness to pay the political price required and conflicting political considerations.

At first glance, the logic and beauty of such a deal is compelling, and the benefits seem tangible: the United States further stabilizes the Middle East, projects diplomatic power and presence in a way that actually makes it easier to proceed with disengaging from the region and expanding its presence and priorities in the Indo-Pacific.

Saudi Arabia gets a defense pact with the United States, reportedly also asking for a NATO-like “Article 5” on collective security (which means U.S. assurances that it will actively defend the Kingdom). The Saudis get F-35 jets and, most importantly, a civilian nuclear reactor with a uranium enrichment fuel cycle. Israel, meanwhile, gets a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia – which was never really active in Arab-Israeli wars – that conceivably deters Iran and allows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to brag about his diplomatic prowess. It also demonstrates how, despite the criticism, he masterminds relations with the United States, distracts from his flagrant constitutional coup and vindicates his position that “It was never about the Palestinians.”

Win-win-win, right? Not really. It is far from being that simple or straightforward.

In the United States, Democrats’ profound dislike and distaste for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is matched only by their feelings about Mr. Netanyahu. Republicans aren’t enthusiastic about Crown Prince Mohammed either – not after 9/11 or the state-sanctioned assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Nor are they fans of President Joe Biden getting a glitzy photo-op and major diplomatic accomplishment in an election year. And the appetite to provide the Saudis with a defense pact is perhaps limited to defense contractors, not to politicos who are suspicious of Saudi-Chinese relations. The U.S.-Saudi relationship may be “too big to fail,” as Aaron David Miller rightly and repeatedly points out, but Saudi Arabia is no longer seen as a credible ally.

For their part, the Saudis would love U.S. defense assurances, but don’t need a formal, ceremonious upgrade of relations with Israel. Defense and intelligence cooperation, as well as tech companies doing business, has been quietly going on for quite some time.

As for Israel, acceding to a Saudi nuclear program is considered reckless by the defense establishment, given Riyadh’s relationship with nuclear-capable Pakistan and China. But the big stumbling block would be the Palestinian factor. The phrase “The Saudis don’t really care about the Palestinians” seems to roll easily off Israeli tongues. Right. But they will insist, as will Biden and other Democrats, for a significant change in Israeli policy. Netanyahu is both incapable of and unwilling to do so given his extremist right-wing ruling coalition.

The question remains: Why the U.S. urgency in examining the viability of such a deal? Is it a means to force Netanyahu to change his coalition? He will not do so. Biden has been fooled by him before, as he was by Crown Prince Mohammed on oil prices. Biden is too experienced and savvy to fall for these two again.

Remember the “Arab Peace Initiative?”

Last week, Thomas Friedman wrote an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Biden is weighing a big Middle East deal.” In the wildly melodramatic world of Israeli media and politics, this was instantly misinterpreted as a sign that an Israeli-Saudi normalization deal was just around the corner.

Angry pro-democracy protesters and political rivals instinctively saw this as Biden bailing out Netanyahu, enabling him to sidestep an unpopular, dangerous and failing constitutional coup and instead present some major diplomatic achievement. Others construed this as if the United States had turned Saudi-Israeli relations into a top foreign policy interest, while others who actually read the little that is known about the contours of such a deal casually dismissed its feasibility.

All of them would be well advised to re-read Friedman’s column, or listen to his CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria on Sunday. This is what he wrote that is relevant: “The president is wrestling with whether to pursue the possibility of a U.S.-Saudi mutual security pact that would involve Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel, provided that Israel make concessions to the Palestinians that would preserve the possibility of a two-state solution. … The president still has not made up his mind whether to proceed, but he gave a green light for his team to probe with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to see if some kind of deal is possible and at what price.”

In other words. Biden is probing, has not made a decision, is fully aware of the intricacies and impediments, and did what any president would do: send top emissaries to survey the geopolitical landscape.

The idea of upgraded Saudi-Israeli relations, even normalization and full diplomatic relations, is not new. Imagine that Israel would have accepted, or at least expressed a willingness to entertain as a basis for dialogue, the 2002 “Arab Peace Initiative” – a concise and clear plan presented by Crown Prince (and later King) Abdullah. It called for normalization of relations in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories (including the Golan Heights) and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. It was not easy to digest in the midst of the second intifada and less than year after the 9/11 attacks, but it was everything Israel had hoped for and wanted since 1967.

In fact, Saudi Arabia has a history of presenting such initiatives – going back to the 1981 Crown Prince Fahd plan that Israel rejected on delivery.

Saudi-Israeli relations will at some point mature and evolve. But given the current circumstances and conditions, particularly in Israel, it is difficult to see this happening along the lines of this three-sided deal.

August 1, 2023 | Comments »

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