Joe Biden can point to a few concrete foreign-policy accomplishments during his presidency thus far. Ukraine would be in far worse shape against Russia were it not for the financial, economic and military assistance the White House has provided. Washington has also done a commendable job getting Japan and South Korea back on speaking terms after years of bickering.
Yet both of these items are tactical in nature and aren’t going to bring Biden into the history books. Shepherding a comprehensive normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, however, just might. That was, until an unprecedented Hamas-led attack into Israel threw a wrench into his plans.
Before those brutal, coordinated attacks over the weekend, senior US officials believed an Israel-Saudi accord, if finalized, would be an earth-shattering moment akin to the infamous 1979 peace deal between Israel and Egypt. Secretary of state Antony Blinken, national security advisor Jake Sullivan and Brett McGurk, Biden’s top Middle East advisor on the National Security Council, have all traveled to the kingdom repeatedly hoping to nail down a prospective deal. Blinken has called the diplomatic effort a top US priority and heralded the emergence of a successful process as one with “transformative” potential. At times, Washington has appeared more gung-ho about normalization than the Israelis and Saudis have.
Would Israel and Saudi Arabia formalizing their relationship serve the US interest? This question may be entirely academic today. Israel’s first, second and third priorities is now to snuff out Hamas in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the worst day of violence in Israeli history since the 1973 Yom Kippur war. With up to 300,000 Israeli reservists now called to duty for what will likely be a bloody, tough and long ground invasion of the highly-populated enclave, everything else — including normalizing ties with Saudi Arabia — will be on the back-burner.
From the US standpoint, Washington should be asking an entirely different question: how high a price should Biden pay to turn his Israel-Saudi normalization dreams into reality?
Mohammed bin Salman likes to think of himself as a revolutionary figure. Recognizing Israel is undoubtedly a stepping-stone toward wider, grandiose ambitions. Unlike his aging father, King Salman, the Saudi crown prince seems perfectly willing to throw the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative into the garbage. That initiative, crafted by MbS’s uncle, the late King Abdullah, grants Israel normalized status in exchange for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. MbS, however, is no King Abdullah; to the extent he cares about the Palestinians, it’s because he’s forced to by King Salman. Yet with an impending Israeli military assault in Gaza that will obviously claim Palestinian lives (hundreds have already been killed by airstrikes), even the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler will exhibit some self-awareness. He won’t return to Fox News and trumpet potential normalization with Israel as a history-maker anytime soon.
It’s possible Saudi and Israel could return to the normalization track after the Gaza War is over. Both states have much to gain from a deal. MbS understands that institutionalizing Riyadh’s informal relationship with Israel would be a boon for the kingdom economically and militarily. Israel, after all, is the region’s technological powerhouse, and it has much to offer a country like Saudi Arabia, which is trying to transition itself from a top-heavy, public sector-dominated economy underwritten by oil revenue into one with a robust private sector impressive enough to entice investors from the world’s largest multinational companies.
But assuming Israeli and Saudi officials get back to the table in earnest, it won’t be a normal negotiation. The US, which has been doing most of the legwork in the months since they began, will likely insist on putting itself at the center of the process. Biden clearly desires a major foreign policy win and is desperate to strike an agreement.
The Saudis can smell the desperation and are attempting to cash in by extracting as many goodies for themselves as they can possibly get. The Saudi government has told the US that Riyadh is only willing to sign a normalization deal with Israel if the US grants the kingdom hefty concessions in return, including a formal US defense guarantee, along the lines of what the US maintains with Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea, and US support for a Saudi nuclear program with uranium enrichment capabilities. The latter is especially concerning to non-proliferation experts who see an indigenous Saudi enrichment program as a giant leap toward the eventual development of a Saudi nuclear weapons program, which MbS has stated he’s interested in.
However, you can make a legitimate case that a US defense guarantee on behalf of Saudi Arabia is the more troubling ask, if only because it would turn professional US soldiers into de-facto security guards for the royal family — a group of autocrats who don’t hesitate to undermine the US when it advances Riyadh’s interests.
Those who argue that bringing Saudi Arabia into the US fold will box China out of the Middle East or compel Riyadh to degrade its relationship with Beijing simply hasn’t spent a lot of time studying Saudi Arabia. The Saudis will continue to accelerate their trade ties with China, which reached $106 billion in 2022, and court deep-pocketed Chinese investors regardless of whether the US pledges to safeguard them. Bluntly put: if MbS got his way, the US would be the servant at the party cleaning up Saudi Arabia’s mess while the royals make nice with China.
For the United States, an Israel-Saudi normalization deal would be a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. That’s just as well because the war in Gaza has likely frozen any framework for the time being. If, after the war, the Saudis still want to normalize ties with Israel, they will do it on their own. The Biden administration doesn’t need to present sweeteners to them on a silver platter, particularly when it involves setting itself up for another long-term security commitment in the Middle East. Anything else would be a bad deal for the US. Here’s hoping Biden knows what he’s doing.