The Road to Riyadh
Aug 28, 2023 | Mark Regev
Israel-Saudi peace appears a real possibility
The widespread assumption has been that under Israel’s current right-wing Government, further progress on Middle East peace would be near impossible. But some very serious behind-the-scenes diplomacy currently afoot has the potential to create a breakthrough in Israel’s relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds.
At the end of July, during a re-election fundraiser in Freeport, Maine, US President Joe Biden shared with the audience his hopes for a historic normalisation of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. “There’s a rapprochement that may be underway,” Biden said.
The President’s remarks came after a visit to Jeddah by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and the Administration’s Middle East Envoy, Brett McGurk.
The White House statement on their talks in the kingdom was appropriately guarded, innocuously referring to discussions on “a common vision for a more peaceful, secure, prosperous, and stable Middle East.” Privately, US officials were more upbeat, expressing cautious optimism that progress could be made.
Biden’s comments in Maine followed the publication of a Thomas Friedman piece in the New York Times based on the columnist’s conversation with the President. Friedman reported that Biden was working on “a US-Saudi mutual security pact that would involve Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel.”
Over the past decade, the Jerusalem-Riyadh channel has grown steadily warmer. It is widely assumed that the 2020 Abraham Accords with Gulf states the UAE and Bahrain could not have materialised without some level of Saudi approval.
And in 2022, when El Al aircraft received Riyadh’s permission to fly over Saudi airspace on their routes from Ben-Gurion Airport to destinations in Asia, more than one Middle East expert concluded it was a public manifestation of a veiled yet burgeoning relationship – sometimes referred to as “mushroom diplomacy”, after the fungi that grows best in the dark.
Moving Israel-Saudi ties from the shadows into the light of day will require a triangular convergence of interests between Jerusalem, Riyadh, and Washington, and it is quite possible – perhaps even probable – that such a confluence is emerging.
Stabilising the Middle East
From Biden’s perspective, an Israel-Saudi peace would be a momentous achievement, eclipsing even former US President Donald Trump’s success in brokering the Abraham Accords.
From a national security point of view, the signing of a Saudi-US security pact would stabilise and upgrade Washington’s ties with Riyadh. Of late, these relations have been plagued by recurring problems, from candidate Biden’s comments about making Saudi Arabia a “pariah nation” following the October 2018 murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to Riyadh’s rolling out the red carpet for America’s rival, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in December 2022.
Israel-Saudi normalisation would also augment regional stability, with two of Washington’s most important Middle East partners reaching a pro-Western and pro-American accord that would undoubtedly serve US interests.
Adding the laurel of peacemaker to Biden’s political persona could prove advantageous in his forthcoming re-election bid. Although Americans seldom prioritise foreign policy at the ballot box, accomplishing an Israel-Saudi deal would demonstrate compelling presidential leadership and help Democrats dispel Republican accusations of an aged and ineffectual chief executive.
For its part, Riyadh could see the approaching presidential election as a window of opportunity to achieve a long-sought-after Saudi-US mutual security pact that would codify Washington’s commitment to protect and defend the kingdom.
In recent years, the pro-Western Arab states have had doubts about Washington’s obligation to their security – fearing the rise of American neo-isolationism or a strategic “pivot” in US priorities away from the Middle East to regions further afield. The signing of a pact would mitigate such concerns by formalising a Saudi-US alliance.
In addition, Riyadh believes that such an agreement will give its armed forces access to state-of-the-art American military hardware which until now has been denied the kingdom, especially the advanced F-35 stealth combat aircraft.
Saudi Arabia is also demanding US support for its plans to build a civilian nuclear power program, including indigenous enrichment.
While Washington has been reticent to go down that route, Riyadh has a powerful argument: If America is willing to acquiesce to Iran, a professed enemy of the West, operating a “civilian” nuclear program, why can’t a loyal friend build a similar capability? (Many assume that the Saudis want a developed nuclear infrastructure for the eventuality that Teheran crosses the threshold).
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has declared Jerusalem-Riyadh normalisation a key goal of his Government, knowing full well it would be a geopolitical game-changer. The kingdom’s special status across the Arab world almost guarantees that additional Arab countries, which have been sitting on the fence, would follow Riyadh’s lead.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia enjoys a unique leadership role in the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation. If the kingdom was to make peace with Israel, Muslim-majority countries – from Southeast Asia to Sub-Saharan Africa – could follow suit.
While appreciating that relations with Riyadh would spur additional normalisations, many in Israel will remain wary about the kingdom having unfettered access to advanced US weaponry, as they surely will be over the idea of a Saudi nuclear program.
Of paramount importance is a parallel Jerusalem-Washington dialogue on the parameters and safeguards governing any nuclear development, as well as ensuring that the Saudi military upgrade will not adversely affect the IDF’s qualitative military edge (QME) to which the US is committed.
Presumably, the Palestinian issue cannot be sidelined. But if the Saudis once placed an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and the establishment of a Palestinian state as preconditions for normalisation, today Riyadh is in a very different place.
While the kingdom is no longer willing to accept a Palestinian veto over its foreign policy, a deal may nonetheless necessitate Israeli concessions in the West Bank.
Netanyahu might be asked to publicly rule out any unilateral annexations, proclaim an openness to the possibility of eventual Palestinian statehood, and even limit settlement construction.
Although difficult, these sorts of steps are neither unprecedented nor impossible: In exchange for diplomatic relations with the UAE in 2020, Netanyahu shelved plans for annexation. He gave qualified acceptance of Palestinian statehood in his June 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, and more recently in his championing of Trump’s January 2020 “Deal of the Century” Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. He could also revisit the understanding of settlement growth discussed with the Trump White House.
Of course, while Netanyahu can be expected to rise to the occasion, it is not clear that all his current coalition partners will go along too.