Are Saudi and Israel getting close to a normalization deal?
The US and Saudi Arabia have reportedly agreed on the outline of a normalization deal between Israel and the Gulf Kingdom that could take place within 9-12 months.
Though it’s unclear what the two parties have decided, it’s relevant that US officials leaked this update in an attempt to raise expectations that progress is being made.
What’s the background here? Israel has long made it clear that normalization with Saudi Arabia, including official diplomatic relations, is a key priority that would help pave the way for the Jewish State to gain legitimacy throughout the Muslim world.
As the custodian of two of Islam’s holiest sites, the epicenter of Sunni Islam, and an influential petrostate, Saudi Arabia is one of the most powerful states in the Muslim world.
While Israel and the Saudis have for decades cooperated behind closed doors – even more so in recent years due to their shared enmity of Iran – the latter has been reluctant to officialize the relationship. Riyadh has cited the Palestinian issue as the main obstacle, but the bottom line is that accepting Israel is still taboo in the Arab world.
To be sure, that all started to shift three years ago when three Arab states – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco – normalized relations with Israel under the Trump-backed Abraham Accords.
So what does everyone want? In addition to the hoped-for trickle-down effect, for Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu, the Saudis abandoning their long-standing insistence that the Palestinian issue be resolved beforehand would be a symbolic and ideological victory.
Meanwhile, for the Biden administration, the deal would be a foreign policy win ahead of the 2024 election. But as foreign policy isn’t a huge electoral issue for American voters, Washington is likely more motivated by the need to create a new web of alliances in the Middle East as Russia and China seek to enlarge their respective footprints in the region. Indeed, Washington reportedly asked Riyadh to cool relations with Beijing to move things along.
What’s the Saudi angle? While normalization presents an economic opportunity, Riyadh is likely more concerned about securing from the US several concessions that have long been on its wishlist, including a bilateral NATO-like security guarantee, the go-ahead for a civilian nuclear power program and the removal of some arm sales embargos.
Here’s the catch: Bibi, a right-winger, is very popular in the Republican Party, and so Biden will likely have an easier time pitching the deal to the GOP. However, it could be harder to sell it to members of his own party, many of whom don’t think the US should give an inch to the Saudis due to their human rights record. And they aren’t very fond of Bibi Netanyahu either.