Saudi-Israeli Normalization Persists Amid Gaza War

Before “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood,” launched by Hamas on October 7, 2023, the Biden administration was attempting to conclude a diplomatic groundbreaking deal involving Saudi Arabia and Israel. Although negotiations were underway for several weeks, a final agreement had not yet been reached. Speculation swirled regarding potential concessions to the Palestinians within the deal, although the specifics remained vague. The groundwork for this deal was laid with the announcement of an initiative at the G20 summit aimed at connecting India to Europe via the Middle East through railways, high-speed data cables, and energy pipelines—a move intended to counter the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in the region.

According to several media reports, the three-way deal would require the United States to sign a defense treaty with Saudi Arabia, that would involve binding commitment to Saudi Arabia’s security, agreeing to a Saudi civilian nuclear program, and the sale of advanced weapons. In return, the Saudis would agree to normalize relations with Israel, scale back their relationship with China, and be more aligned with US interests in the region. Israel would give “undefined concessions” to the Palestinians and in return stand to gain from the wider political and economic impact of normalizing relations with a key Arab and Muslim country.

The events of October 7 significantly disrupted the ongoing negotiations and the deal encountered great obstacles. But the Biden administration remained steadfast in its commitment to seeing the deal through. President Joe Biden perceived the Hamas operation as a deliberate attempt to thwart the Saudi-Israeli normalization deal. However, Israel’s stance hardened against making any concessions to the Palestinians within the agreement, while Saudi Arabia began explicitly insisting on the deal’s inclusion of recognition of a Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967 borders.

Seeking a Foreign Policy Triumph

President Biden’s foreign policy achievements since taking office have been modest at best. His efforts in Ukraine, particularly in confronting Russia, failed to yield positive results thus far. The initial Western consensus in support of Ukraine waned over time, with voices within the United States increasingly questioning continued backing for the country despite the latest aid package approved by Congress and signed by the president.

For Biden, the Saudi-Israeli normalization deal represents a potential landmark achievement in his foreign policy agenda. This only partially explains his unwavering support for Israel during the Gaza War—in addition to his ideological and political commitment to Israel. Biden sees the war as a means to sideline those who oppose regional normalization and the formation of an axis of American allies in the region.

For Biden, the Saudi-Israeli normalization deal represents a potential landmark achievement in his foreign policy agenda.

Moreover, the United States views the Saudi-Israeli normalization as strategically significant. With an eye toward maintaining influence in the Middle East while focusing on containing China, the United States aims to forge an Arab-Israeli alliance to ensure Israel’s security and long-term presence in the region. This alliance, primarily focused on economic and security cooperation, is intended to fill the void left by the partial American disengagement from the region, counterbalance China’s growing influence, and confront Iran.

Ironically, American actions post-October 7 have deviated from this strategic vision. Instead of adhering to the policy of reducing the military presence in the region, the United States has ramped up this military presence, engaging in conflicts with groups like Yemen’s Ansar Allah movement (the Houthis) over maritime security in the Red Sea and Iranian-backed factions in Iraq and Syria. This heightened involvement weakens America’s position vis-à-vis China and further complicates efforts to revive the normalization process.

The Biden administration seeks to mitigate the fallout from the Gaza War on the normalization process by re-emphasizing the two-state solution. However, challenges persist, particularly due to the staunchly right-wing Israeli government. Despite Biden’s unwavering support for Israel during the conflict, disagreements between him and Netanyahu on managing the military operation and post-war plans highlight the difficulty of influencing Israel’s political trajectory, particularly regarding the Palestinian issue.

Normalization with the United States

In an interview with Fox News before the Gaza War, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman described the Saudi-Israeli normalization deal as the most significant historic agreement since the end of the Cold War. For Saudi Arabia, the primary benefits of this deal stem from the United States, particularly the defense agreement requested by the kingdom. For the Saudis, this deal represents a turning point in the fluctuating relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States over the years.

While many analysts emphasize that the Saudi-American relationship is primarily based on the exchange of oil for protection, it goes beyond mere oil exploration or importation. Saudi oil money, coupled with Wahhabism infused with the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, played a crucial role in supporting US policies during the Cold War, particularly against the Soviet Union and the Arab nationalist movement. American protection of Saudi Arabia reached its peak during the first Gulf War in 1991. However, differences between the two nations began to escalate with the onset of the new millennium. The Saudi role was no longer deemed as vital to American policy as it was during the Cold War era. While the American need to control oil markets and confront Iran and its allies remained constant, these priorities diminished with the United States’ setbacks in Iraq after 2003 and its inclination toward partial disengagement from the region. With the United States becoming a major oil producer while envisaging a “pivot to Asia” strategy, Saudi Arabia became less important to the United States than before.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies were shocked by the United States’ abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the popular protests of January 2011. Furthermore, the United States failed to please Saudi Arabia by launching a military strike against Syria following the chemical weapons incident in 2013. Subsequent secret talks in Oman followed by the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program further underscored to the Saudis the unreliability of American support.

Many within the ruling elites in Saudi Arabia continued to believe that the United States possessed the capability to act against Iran and its allies but lacked the political will to do so. The Saudis perceived the Obama administration as having a desire to diminish its regional presence, evidenced by its agreement with Iran and purported support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Americans viewed as a potential vehicle for revitalizing Arab regimes.

While Saudi Arabia has not veered away from the path of normalization, it has become increasingly assertive in seeking concessions for the Palestinians.

The attack on the oil fields in Abqaiq in 2019 had a profound impact. The United States’ lack of a decisive response against Iran seriously diminished Saudi confidence in American protection. Analysts have pointed out that one of the primary motives for Saudi-Iranian reconciliation—mediated by China in march 2023—is the shift in American strategy in the Middle East over the last decade, characterized by partial disengagement from the region to contain China and the absence of robust American guarantees for Saudi Arabia’s security.

Reconciliation with Iran has been proposed by some analysts as an alternative to the absence of a comprehensive American security arrangement that would assure Saudi Arabia. However, the ongoing negotiations for normalization with Israel, which are predicated on Saudi security and defense demands from the United States, underscore that Iranian-Saudi reconciliation cannot serve for Saudis as a substitute for American protection. Saudi Arabia’s motivation stems from its disappointment with the American response in 2019, wherein it sought written defense guarantees to reestablish confidence in its American ally, foster a renewed sense of intimacy in the relationship, and bolster Saudi Arabia’s capacity to attract more American and Western investments in support of Vision 2030 and its objectives.

The events of October 7 have placed added pressure on Saudi Arabia to incorporate a significant Palestinian component into the normalization deal. While Saudi Arabia has not veered away from the path of normalization, it has become increasingly assertive in seeking concessions for the Palestinians, which essentially implies a commitment to a pathway leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Saudis are advocating for a ceasefire to set the stage for the deal, as well as concessions for the Palestinians that they intend to present to the Arab and Islamic world. They are reluctant to compromise on the gains they anticipate from the deal with the United States, and they are also exploring potential economic partnerships with Israel in the field of information technology and other areas of common interest. While some investments and partnerships have been initiated within this framework, their scope remains limited compared to what could be achieved following the formal announcement of normalization.

Rejection of the Palestinian State

For Israel’s US supporters who believe in the two-state solution, it represents a guarantee of Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist, acknowledgment of its historical narrative, and the removal of its occupation status. Additionally, it is perceived as a means to address the issue of the indigenous population in the West Bank while maintaining control over them without integration, through the establishment of a state/ghetto lacking full sovereignty. This state would oversee the affairs of isolated populations in one area of the West Bank while acknowledging the reality of settlements in the remainder of the territory, thereby solidifying Israeli control over the entire Palestinian territory. While there may be disagreements among Israeli factions regarding specific settlement areas in the West Bank, there is consensus on the overarching goal, i.e. preventing the establishment of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state.

However, with the rightward shift of the political class in Israel, it has become rare to see any Israeli politician supporting the two-state solution. Continued settlement expansion in the West Bank has eroded its viability. While formal adherence to the two-state solution persists in Western discourse, in practice, the United States has aligned itself with the preferences of the Israeli right to sidestep the Palestinian issue. The emergence of the Abraham Accords reflects the joint American-Israeli effort to normalize Israel’s regional presence by marginalizing the Palestinian issue and forging an alliance between Israel and Arab countries. Through these accords, Israel secures economic agreements with wealthy Gulf states, alongside security partnerships and opportunities for intelligence cooperation, providing it with an advantage in its confrontations with Iran and its allies.

The October 7 events dealt a significant blow to this trajectory. Despite ongoing relations between Arab nations and Israel, and the persistent support of the Abraham Accords, it has become untenable to disregard the Palestinian predicament in the quest for regional settlement. The Israeli government has become more adamant in its opposition to a Palestinian state, with Netanyahu openly expressing years-long efforts to thwart its establishment. The events of October 7 further solidified the Israeli right’s stance against a Palestinian state even if such a state were to exist under siege and lack sovereignty.

Time Is of the Essence

The Biden administration seeks a foreign policy triumph before entering electoral competition. Speaking from Riyadh, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared the US-Saudi part of the deal is “very close to completion.” He emphasized that advancing normalization hinges on two key factors: “calm in Gaza and a credible pathway toward a Palestinian state.” Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud also confirmed the US-Saudi agreement is close to be reached. The United States may initiate efforts to dissuade Israel from pursuing its intentions to enter Rafah, offering Saudi normalization and participation in a regional alliance as incentives.

While the Saudis may desire to finalize the deal during this period and garner Democratic support in Congress, it would be inappropriate to proceed with normalization while Israel continues its offensive in Gaza. Saudi Arabia has conveyed to the United States the imperative of progress toward a Palestinian state as a prerequisite for the deal. The Saudis may acquiesce to a path that falls short of formally declaring a Palestinian state, but they will not agree to a deal without concessions that resonate with Arab public opinion and making them able to justify normalization.

Netanyahu remains supportive of the deal, but he believes the defeat of Hamas is the priority and the prelude to normalization. He fears any concessions to the Palestinians could fracture his coalition, precipitating the collapse of his government and the end of his political career. The plan proposed by him regarding the “day after” in Gaza illustrates his commitment to rejecting any concession that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Nevertheless, normalization with Saudi Arabia represents a potential achievement that he can tout to the Israeli public, mitigating some of the fallout from the events of October 7.

The trajectory of the Saudi-Israeli normalization deal has grown increasingly convoluted in the aftermath of the Gaza War, notwithstanding the earnest efforts of all three parties involved to sustain it. The clock is ticking for the Biden administration, which must finalize the agreement by summer to secure congressional approval before election campaigns take center stage. Thus, deciphering the prospect of this deal hinges on American actions vis-à-vis the Gaza war and Netanyahu.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image: Twitter/Antony Blinken