September 30, 2023 | Asia Times

Small steps to a Saudi-Israel ‘mega-deal’

But Washington shouldn’t pursue comprehensive Middle East peace at the expense of localized wins
September 30, 2023 | Asia Times

Small steps to a Saudi-Israel ‘mega-deal’

But Washington shouldn’t pursue comprehensive Middle East peace at the expense of localized wins

US President Joe Biden’s Middle East strategy is earning its nickname: the “de-escalation” doctrine. Washington has in recent months gone out of its way to strike mini-agreements with its enemy, Tehran, and brokered a maritime demarcation deal between Israel and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon.

But when it comes to peace between Arab Gulf states and Israel, the Biden administration expects nothing less than a comprehensive “mega-deal.”

The earliest signs of Saudi-Israeli normalization championed by Biden came in January, through a Saudi trial balloon floated on background by a credible American source. The source described Saudi officials outlining their national priorities as follows: a well-defined Saudi-US military alliance, de-politicized US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and a nuclear program that includes enrichment of uranium.

In return for Washington’s concessions, Riyadh would sign a deal with Israel that didn’t condition their relationship on the state of play between Palestinians and Israelis. 

A closer look showed that the Saudis were in effect seeking to amend the US Democratic Party’s policy on Iran. The Saudi nuclear demand would reopen the discussion on non-proliferation in the Middle East.

By requesting its own domestic uranium enrichment, the kingdom was in effect challenging the license given to Tehran to enrich uranium under the Iran nuclear deal. Like other countries, Iran could run its civilian nuclear program by importing enriched uranium, not by milling it in-house. Enriching uranium at home could make it easier to build a nuclear weapon eventually.

The Saudi proposal went against Biden’s “regional integration” strategy for the Middle East, which has as its cornerstone the appeasement of Tehran under the pretext that the only alternatives are a nuclear Iran or war. In response, the administration stretched the definition of regional integration to include Saudi-Israeli normalization.

Democrats who craft Biden’s foreign policy rarely cheered for the Abraham Accords of peace between the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, on one hand, and Israel, on the other.

In fact, it took Secretary of State Antony Blinken eight months in office before he mentioned the deal, and when he finally did – on September 17, 2021 – Reuters reported that the “administration until now has been cool to the idea of commemorating the anniversary of the US-brokered accords.”

While Biden’s diplomats shuttle back and forth, a series of unprecedented developments have taken place in recent weeks. In late September, Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz participated in a UN tourism conference in Riyadh, while the Saudi non-resident ambassador to Palestine, Nayef al-Sudairi, visited Ramallah – the first visit by a Saudi delegation to the West Bank since 1967.

Saudi Arabia also announced its acceptance of US-standard safeguards for its nascent nuclear program, thus making a “mega-deal” much easier.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman even told Fox News that his country was getting closer to normalization with Israel by the day. Hours later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predicted that the world is “at the cusp of … [a] dramatic breakthrough – an historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia.”

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan had told reporters not to expect “any imminent breakthrough or action [on] normalization.” Along similar lines, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later warned that no “peace can prevail in the Middle East without the Palestinian people enjoying their full, legitimate, and national rights.”

Arab withholding of peace was designed to decimate Israel in 1948 and to give Palestinians leverage to build their state on 1967 territory starting in December 1973. But there’s no amount of Arab leverage that can replace the Palestinian will and ability to build a state.

One lesson from the Iraq war and the Arab Spring is that it’s easy to break states, but hard to replace them. Palestinians’ inability to govern themselves was on display after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

It didn’t take long before the Palestinians plunged into civil war, resulting in a schism between the Palestinian Authority, which supports a two-state solution, and Islamist Hamas, which refuses any kind of recognition of Israel. 

In 2005, Palestinians failed the test of governing. Israel, therefore, cannot trust them with its security and isn’t about to hand them any part of the only remaining disputed territory – Area C of the West Bank. 

The Biden administration should be lauded for reversing earlier positions on Saudi Arabia and engaging in shuttle diplomacy for Saudi normalization with Israel. But the administration seems to underestimate how much heavy lifting Palestinians must do to make peace with Israel happen.

Washington shouldn’t pursue comprehensive peace at the expense of localized wins. Perhaps smaller peace agreements will help foster a mega-deal that includes the Palestinians, just like the Biden team believes that de-escalation deals across the region are better than holding out until peace sweeps through the entire Middle East.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. X@hahussain


Arab Politics Gulf States Iran Iran Nuclear Israel Palestinian Politics