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Biden gives priority to Israel-Saudi normalization

All three parties want a deal, and 2024 is an election year; Syrian Kurdish leader expects little from Arab League normalization with Syria.
Biden Saudi Arabia

Biden weighs price of Israeli-Saudi normalization

Given Israel’s fractious right-wing government and the Arab Sunni states’ rapprochement with Iran, “the dream of peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia should have been relegated to the realm of science fiction,” writes Ben Caspit. “Surprisingly, it remains real.” 

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “dreams” of Israeli-Saudi normalization, a senior Israeli diplomatic source told Caspit. For Netanyahu, another historic star turn as statesman would be a reprieve from the agony of Israeli domestic politics. The country is bitterly divided over his right-wing government’s judicial reform program. There are few rewards for Israel’s longest serving prime minister in the unruly coalition politics, demonstrations in the streets and remonstrations from Washington over the controversial legislation. 

A deal with Saudi Arabia remains Netanyahu’s top priority, along with preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and they are of course linked. While Netanyahu has taken satisfaction in both the impasse over the Iran nuclear deal and increased US-Israeli security coordination regarding Iran, the regional fence-mending with the Islamic Republic has become a source of anxiety, which has occasionally spilled out into the otherwise smooth mind-meld between Washington and Jerusalem over Iran. 

That Netanyahu is willing to pay a “heavy price” for Saudi normalization is a given, as Caspit notes. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman wants it too, but on his terms. Saudi Arabia is looking for a package deal with more benefits and impact, that distinguish such agreement from the Abraham Accords, reached in 2020 between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

The United States is no mere facilitator in this negotiation; it is more of a third principal. In return for normalization, Riyadh is reportedly seeking to take the US-Saudi security partnership to the next level — access to the most advanced weapons systems (on a par with Israel), a defense treaty and a US-Saudi civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

Each of these three reported asks would require congressional buy-in, and some Hill members are concerned about the kingdom’s human rights record and conduct in the war in Yemen. 

The best chance for a civil nuclear agreement would be along the lines of the US-UAE nuclear deal, which is known as the “gold standard” because it does not include enrichment, refining or storage of uranium on Emirati soil. Whether Saudi Arabia would accept those restrictions is uncertain. Karen Young breaks down the issues around the Saudi nuclear program here

Saudi Arabia would also benefit from increased engagement and investment from Israel’s tech industries, given the kingdom’s expansive Vision 2030 development program.

There are now reports that Saudi Arabia may soon approve direct flights for Muslims in Israel for the hajj, which has been under discussion for over a year.

The Biden administration is making Saudi-Israeli normalization a priority. Perhaps surprisingly, the recent escalation in Israeli-Palestinian tensions has not yet influenced or slowed the course of negotiations among the three parties, all of whom want it. Given the stakes in the region, progress doesn’t come easily or quickly. 

Netanyahu wouldn’t mind the boost in relations with the Biden administration that would come from a Saudi deal. He still has not received an invitation to the White House. “The situation in Jerusalem is becoming increasingly awkward,” writes Caspit. “The Biden administration is not hiding its clear distaste for the policies of the Israeli leader and his radical nationalist, racist government.” 

For US President Joe Biden, Israel-Saudi normalization would represent a major breakthrough on Middle East peace, the foreign policy holy grail of American presidents. That it would come in an election year adds to its attraction and urgency. While the Saudi asks of the US Congress are substantial, Israel’s support would help smooth the process with both Democrats and Republicans.

The Biden administration’s focus on diplomacy and de-escalation has facilitated such a breakthrough. The more organic regional security engagement that has evolved was something regional strategists, academics and analysts always talked about and never expected. And now it’s happening on Biden’s watch.   

The US-led diplomacy in the region, which occurs at a sometimes frenetic pace, signals an intensively engaged United States, but one that is empowering its partners, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to deal with adversaries like Syria, end the war in Yemen and reduce tensions with Iran. 

The US role in Israeli-Saudi normalization, and in groups such as the Negev Forum ( which includes the United States, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt) is also a reminder that China can’t compete with American diplomacy and influence.

The Iranian-Saudi rapprochement, signed in China, shouldn’t mislead on this score. Saudi Arabia sought out China at the last minute to oversee its rapprochement with Iran, which had been facilitated by Iraq under former Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. As the United States has no leverage with the Islamic Republic, Riyadh brought in Beijing as a closer. The Biden administration has welcomed the move, as it complements its partner’s initiatives and doesn’t challenge US influence and interests. Israeli-Saudi normalization, if it happens, will be a deal done in Washington. 

Syrian Kurdish leader expects little from Arab normalization with Syria 

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Commander Salih Muslim tells Amberin Zaman that while he welcomes the Arab League’s normalization with Syria, he expects little to come from it, especially without enforceable conditions, such as granting ethnic and religious minorities equal rights. 

Muslim also tells Amberin in this week’s “On the Middle East” podcast that he is ready to negotiate with Damascus and other stakeholders, including regarding the oil resources in SDF-controlled territory. Check out the podcast here

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