June 13, 2024 | Asia Times

Is Israeli-Saudi normalization end or means?

Biden is delaying Saudi normalization with Israel until the region is fixed, mistakenly making peace the end game
June 13, 2024 | Asia Times

Is Israeli-Saudi normalization end or means?

Biden is delaying Saudi normalization with Israel until the region is fixed, mistakenly making peace the end game

The path to a peace treaty between Israel and Saudi Arabia is fraught with prerequisites unrelated to Israel or peace.

Quoting Biden officials, the Wall Street Journal reported that Israel must first help rally US Senate support for an American-Saudi defense treaty that ensures Saudi security and American interests — including distancing Riyadh from Beijing.

Next, Israel must concede territory for Palestinian self-determination even before Hamas, which pledges to annihilate the Jewish state, is eradicated. Only then will Saudi Arabia normalize ties with Israel – and, even then, solely on its own behalf, not representing the Arab League or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

In January 2023, when Saudi Arabia first floated the idea of bilateral peace with Israel regardless of the Palestinian track, Riyadh did so in line with a shift in Riyadh’s foreign policy that had started with the accession of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) in 2016. Riyadh started prioritizing “Saudi First” over leadership in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Along similar lines, the kingdom minimized its intervention in Lebanon and Syria, among other places, deeming these countries strategically insignificant.

Riyadh’s approach aligned with the Trump administration’s outside-in peace model, which pursued bilateral peace treaties between Israel and individual Arab governments as a prelude to Israel peace with Palestinians. But the Biden administration reverted to the older inside-out formula of “Palestinians first,” Israeli peace with the Arabs later. Biden’s view of Arab peace with Israel thus clashed with Riyadh’s priorities.

The gap between Washington and Riyadh was on display in January. While the Saudis said they would normalize ties with Israel in return for an irreversible course toward a Palestinian state, Washington went a step farther by considering the option of unilaterally recognizing a Palestinian state.

To avoid appearing less supportive of Palestinian demands than Washington the Saudis hardened their stance, making the establishment of a Palestinian state a prerequisite for normalization with Israel. Since then, both Washington and Riyadh seem to have settled on the “pathway to a Palestinian state” as a prerequisite for Saudi normalization with Israel.

No one seems to know, or has even tried to outline, what a pathway to a Palestinian state looks like or means. Who runs the Palestinian state? What happens to Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and promises eternal war? And who speaks on behalf of Palestinians while America, Saudi Arabia, and Israel try to iron out these problems.

Blinken thus pinned his hopes on the corrupt, powerless and irrelevant Palestinian Authority (PA) and pressed Gulf capitals to partner with the PA to wind down the Gaza War and pursue peace.

Gulf capitals reluctantly obliged but, beneath the surface, Gulf leaders were unhappy with Washington dictating a post-war lineup. The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Abdullah Bin Zayed, reportedly engaged in a “shouting match” with the PA’s second-in-command, Hussein al-Sheikh, and demanded that the PA enlist more competent Palestinians such as former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The Biden administration seems oblivious of Middle East reality and more focused on its domestic constituency, especially in a presidential election year. Washington has doubled down on an Israeli ceasefire with Hamas and coupled it with a two-state peace deal with the PA – even though the two schemes clash, given that Hamas vehemently opposes recognition of and peace with Israel.

With its plan going around in circles, Washington declared that its bilateral defense treaty with Saudi Arabia was ready – perhaps reasoning that such news would incentivize Israel to accept both a ceasefire and a two-state.

But why would an American-Saudi defense treaty motivate Israel? And why should Israel expend political capital in Washington to help pass a treaty that does not solve its problem with the Palestinians – especially considering that 74 percent of Israelis oppose a Palestinian state in the absence of a reliable Palestinian peace partner. Biden’s diplomacy looks counterintuitive.

A more effective approach would have been for Saudi Arabia to sign a peace treaty with Israel unconditionally and build a strong alliance. Once they are allies, the Israelis and the Saudis can work together on solving the various issues, including the stabilization of Gaza, post-Hamas, countering regional troublemaker Iran, and on strengthening Saudi ties with the US in ways that distance Riyadh from Beijing. Through this alliance, the Saudis can help groom a reliable Palestinian partner than can talk peace with Israel.

Biden’s diplomacy is delaying Saudi normalization with Israel until after the region is fixed, making peace the end game. Instead, Washington should treat Israeli-Saudi peace as a means that can help counter the Iran-led warring camp in the region and help defuse a century old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

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. Follow Hussain on X @hahussain

Issues:

Arab Politics Gulf States Israel Palestinian Politics