June 3, 2024 | The Algemeiner

Only Defeating Hamas Can Lead to an Israeli-Saudi Normalization Deal

June 3, 2024 | The Algemeiner

Only Defeating Hamas Can Lead to an Israeli-Saudi Normalization Deal

United States President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, visited Israel and Saudi Arabia in mid-May, offering a Saudi-Israeli normalization package that he says would lead to greater peace, stability, and security in the region.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the offer, because it demanded two major concessions from Jerusalem that Netanyahu is currently not prepared to make: an end to the war in Gaza and a path forward to a Palestinian state, despite not having a clear partner for peace.

Impatient for a win ahead of the November elections and frustrated by Israel’s rebuff, Biden may move forward with a deal with the Saudis that leaves Jerusalem behind.

The Biden administration is trying to recapture momentum towards a trilateral US-Saudi-Israel normalization deal that seemed imminent before the horrific Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023, and the bloody war that ensued. Under the terms of last year’s proposal, each side had a lot to gain from a deal.

Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman — commonly known as MBS — was to get three primary asks: a defense pact with the US, a new, sophisticated US weapons package, including some offensive capabilities, and an independent civil nuclear program that the US would provide to include uranium enrichment on Saudi soil.

In addition, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia demanded (reportedly due in part to pressure from Washington) that Jerusalem publicly endorse a relatively amorphous “pathway” to a Palestinian state, with likely Israeli concessions on hot button issues like settlements.

Jerusalem would have gained normalization with Riyadh — one of Netanyahu’s preeminent goals after winning his election in 2022 — and the hope that a cascade of Arab and Muslim countries would follow the Kingdom. A further incentive for Jerusalem to normalize ties with the Kingdom is to bolster the regional coalition against Iran.

It is very much in US interests to strengthen the regional security architecture in the Middle East, especially as America reduces its military footprint in the region. Biden also wanted to expand peace in a troubled region, lock in a deal to sell expensive weapons to the oil-rich Saudis, and achieve a major diplomatic win in his first term as president.

According to Hamas, scuttling the normalization deal was one of the motivations for attacking Israel last fall. The deal was paused soon after Hamas attacked the Jewish State.

In recent months, the US has been pushing hard to get the trilateral deal back on track, but the horrific attacks of October 7 and the bloody war that ensued have — at least temporarily — changed the cost-benefit equation for both Bibi and MBS.

October 7 made the Israelis feel incredibly vulnerable. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis from Northern and Southern Israel — who were at the highest risk of deadly rocket fire — were evacuated from their homes. But all Israelis are vulnerable to attack.

Every Israeli lives within rocket range or sniper range of Iran-backed terrorists. For the past several months, Israelis have continued to experience the relentless rocket sirens, the trauma of the missing hostages, loved ones fighting on the front, and a precipitous spike in terrorism that has killed dozens in Israel since October 7. Given the very real threats, Israelis overwhelmingly support the war in Gaza and will likely continue to do so until Hamas is no longer able to terrorize the country.

MBS understands that Israel’s war on Hamas, which — despite the lowest civilian to terrorist casualty ratio in the history — has resulted in many civilian casualties in Gaza, and that this has galvanized the Arab street.

The images coming out of Gaza are harrowing, and the trauma felt by Palestinians and Arabs worldwide — including in Saudi Arabia — should not be underestimated. MBS knows that he cannot normalize ties while the war rages in Gaza, based on the pre-war terms of the deal.

Despite these new challenges, the administration is hungry for a diplomatic win. Biden’s polling numbers are weak, and November is shaping up to be a tough race. Biden’s national security advisor came to the region last month in an attempt to deliver a much-needed diplomatic victory to the president, as well as peace to the region.

But what did Sullivan offer Riyadh and Jerusalem?

After consultations with the Saudis, Sullivan is offering the Kingdom much of what was on the table last time — a defense pact, a civil nuclear program, and a weapons package — but MBS now wants a bigger gesture towards a “credible pathway” to Palestinian statehood — and is additionally requiring a “ceasefire in Gaza”; effectively an end to the war.

Sullivan came to Jerusalem with an addition to his offer for Netanyahu that he hoped would be a deal-sweetener — a limited defense treaty with the US in which the US would come to Israel’s defense if the Jewish State was facing an existential threat.

There has long been a conversation in Israel as to whether a defense treaty with the US would be a wise arrangement for Israel. One of the founding principles of Zionism and Israel’s national defense ethos is that Israel should be able to defend itself by itself. The Jewish people, who were stateless for millennia, would not put themselves at the mercy of another power.

A defense treaty may be enticing for some in Netanyahu’s close circles, but it is not compelling enough for Jerusalem to agree to the terms of the new deal; the disadvantages far outweigh the benefits. If Netanyahu accepts Sullvian’s offer, threatens to prematurely end the war in Gaza, and makes a premature overture toward Palestinian statehood — which there is no indication he wants to do — his leadership coalition would immediately collapse, and Israel would head to their sixth election in six years.

After the meeting, Netanyahu told Sullivan and the Israeli public that, while normalization with the Kingdom would be a considerable boon for Israel, the price tag was too high.

With the ticking clock of the presidential elections looming, new reports suggest that Biden may be planning to cinch the deal with Saudi Arabia and present it to American voters as a fait accompli.

But Israel cannot fight this existential war against Hamas according to the US election cycle. Despite the electoral pressures Biden is facing, Washington needs to exercise patience.

It is possible that the war in Gaza will look very different in a matter of months. Once the IDF can sufficiently declaw Hamas, bring back the hostages, and end the war with the correct guarantees and incentives from Washington, Jerusalem will likely be ready to begin working with partners to chart a new future for Gaza. At that point, a normalization deal like Sullivan’s will likely hold renewed appeal for Jerusalem, as Saudi Arabia and the moderate Arab regimes could play a critical role in the enclave’s future. Washington and Riyadh will find Jerusalem more flexible on issues that present stumbling blocks today.

To expedite Israel’s war in Gaza, and create potential for a greater regional peace, the US must remain steadfast in its support of the Jewish State.

Enia Krivine is the senior director of the Israel Program and the FDD National Security Network at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on X at @EKrivine. Brig. Gen. (Res.) Prof. Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a professor at the Technion. He served as the national security advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu and as the acting head of the National Security Council.

Issues:

Arab Politics Israel Israel at War