Washington, DC – The United States has made establishing diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel a top policy goal – a push that experts say would leave Palestinians behind and could come at a high price for Washington in the Middle East.
The complexity of Washington’s so-called normalisation drive also has raised questions around why US President Joe Biden’s administration has made it a priority right now.
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“Biden belongs to a school of thought that views the Arab-Israeli conflict as one in which Palestinians are not necessarily the central force,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute think-tank.
“He believes that the underlying root cause of this conflict is the inability of Arab states to accept Israel. And so, if that’s how you view the conflict, it would make sense that you would prioritise normalisation,” Elgindy told Al Jazeera.
Last week, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman laid out a complex plan that he said Biden is pursuing to secure an Israeli-Saudi deal. It involves giving Saudi Arabia NATO-like security guarantees and helping the Gulf kingdom kick-start a civilian nuclear programme.
The framework would not directly involve the Palestinians, Friedman reported, but it would include some concessions to them, such as an Israeli settlement freeze and a pledge from Israel to never annex the occupied West Bank.
While Friedman regularly meets with Biden, his account has not been officially confirmed by the US government. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have previously reported, however, that Riyadh is seeking a security pact from Washington and a nuclear programme as part of any normalisation agreement with Israel.
Despite not commenting on the specifics of a prospective deal, US officials have declared unambiguously that they are seeking an Israeli-Saudi agreement.
Israeli leaders also have made no secret of their aspiration for formal ties with Riyadh: “We pray for this moment to come,” Israel’s President Isaac Herzog said in a speech to the US Congress last month.
For its part, Saudi Arabia has not officially changed its policy in support of the Arab Peace Initiative, which conditions recognition of Israel on establishing a Palestinian state and finding a “fair solution” to the plight of Palestinian refugees.
Still, Saudi officials have not entirely ruled out the prospect of a deal with Israel.
Last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the country views Israel as a “potential ally”, but he stressed that Israel “should solve its problems with the Palestinians”, who have so far been largely absent from the normalisation campaign.
“We believe that normalisation is in the interest of the region, that it would bring significant benefits to all,” Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said during a joint news conference with his US counterpart Anthony Blinken in June.
“But without finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people, without addressing that challenge, any normalisation will have limited benefits. And therefore, I think we should continue to focus on finding a pathway towards a two-state solution, on finding a pathway towards giving the Palestinians dignity and justice.”
Few Arab states have recognised Israel since its inception in 1948, but former US President Donald Trump’s administration helped secure agreements for formal relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020 – known as the “Abraham Accords”. Sudan also agreed to normalise relations with Israel as part of Trump’s push.
Despite that, Israel has not significantly altered its policies on Palestinians, which leading rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, say amount to apartheid.
In fact, in recent months, the far-right government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has intensified settlement expansion and military raids on Palestinian communities in the West Bank.
This has raised questions among experts around whether the Israeli government, which includes ultranationalists who want to further enshrine Israel’s control of the occupied Palestinian territories, would agree to a settlement freeze or a pledge against annexation – even if it comes with official Saudi recognition.
“I don’t think this Israeli government is capable of conceding anything – even on paper – for Palestinians because they’re committed to the dismantling of the entire Palestinian national idea,” Elgindy said.
The Palestinian issue
Aside from questions over the Israeli government‘s willingness to agree to such concessions, a Saudi-Israeli deal also faces other potential obstacles. Public opinion polls, for instance, show that Saudi citizens do not support recognising Israel.
Anna Jacobs, a senior analyst for the Gulf states at the International Crisis Group think-tank, said Saudi Arabia will likely need to take its citizens’ views into account.
“For Saudi Arabia to seriously consider moving forward with normalization with Israel, several conditions need to be met, one of which is some sort of progress on revamping the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process,” she told Al Jazeera in an email.
“It would be difficult for Saudi Arabia to legitimize the decision to normalize relations with Israel, which isn’t popular among the Saudi public, without showing some benefits for Palestinians.”
But for many Palestinians, the demands outlined by Friedman on annexation and settlements are crumbs they say are meant to give a cover of legitimacy to the potential deal.
“If Saudi Arabia and Israel want to get together, don’t make this about Palestinians; it’s not,” said Palestinian-American analyst Yousef Munayyer.
Still, many states in the Middle East have joined the US-led “Abraham Accords” in pursuit of their own interests, drawing the ire of Palestinians who say the deals are a “stab in the back”.
As reported by several American media outlets, Saudi Arabia is pushing for its own concessions from the US should it officially recognise Israel – namely formal security guarantees from Washington.
But that would pose another hurdle for the normalisation push, experts have said.
Any treaty with Riyadh would require the approval of at least two-thirds of the legislators in the US Senate, which could prove difficult given the rise of voices on Capitol Hill that are critical of Saudi Arabia, as well as of further US military involvement in the Middle East.
Jon Hoffman, a foreign policy analyst at the CATO Institute, a libertarian think-tank based in Washington, DC, also said a codified US security pact with Saudi Arabia would risk destablising the region shortly after Riyadh and Tehran agreed to a detente.
The details of such an arrangement between Washington and Riyadh remain unclear, but Friedman reported that the Saudi government is seeking a “NATO-level mutual security treaty”. The US has a defence pact with NATO countries, meaning it would be obligated to come to their defence if they are attacked.
“This is not worth it at all. If Biden goes through with this, I think this will be the worst foreign policy decision in the Middle East since Iraq,” said Hoffman, referring to the 2003 US-led invasion of the country.
The Saudi embassy in Washington, DC did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment by the time of publication.
While recognition by Saudi Arabia would be significant for Israel, analysts say diplomatic ties between the two countries also would be a foreign policy win for Biden as the 2024 US election season goes into full swing.
And while average American voters may not base their votes on foreign policy, Arab-Israeli normalisation remains popular among both major parties in Washington, DC. For example, in 2020, many Democrats who loathed Trump praised the “Abraham Accords”.
“US electoral politics helps explain why the Biden administration is pursuing this normalization deal so publicly and intensely at this time,” said Jacobs. “In the realm of US domestic politics, Saudi-Israel normalization would be a foreign policy win for the Biden administration.”
But Jacobs added that a deal would “do little to improve the plight of Palestinians or improve broader regional security”.
That was echoed by Munayyer, who told Al Jazeera that Israeli normalisation with Saudi Arabia and other Arab- and Muslim-majority countries will not change the reality of the Israeli occupation or the conflict as a whole.
“The Israelis are not going to be any closer to resolving the fundamental problem of ruling over millions of Palestinians who don’t want to be ruled by Israel, and who want to have freedom and justice and equality,” he said.
“You can normalise and have relations with every Arab and Muslim country, that’s not going to change that fact.”