The Gaza Crisis Pushes Washington and Riyadh Closer

Hamas’s May 6 acceptance of a hostage deal proposed by Egypt and Qatar was surely designed to induce the White House to pressure Israel to produce a counteroffer, perhaps opening the door to a ceasefire. President Joe Biden’s forceful announcement on May 8 that the United States will not deliver 3,500 heavy ordnance bombs to Israel if it launches a full-scale invasion of Rafah— combined with CIA Chief William Burns’s trip to Jerusalem for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—underscore the high stakes facing the administration. A full Israeli incursion into Rafah might not just trigger the wider regional conflict that the White House has worked hard to prevent. It could also undercut Biden’s ambitious bid to secure a new defense pact with Saudi Arabia.

This complicated moment has created a troubling prospect for Israel: if it invades Rafah, the Biden administration may give pride of place to a US-Saudi pact and Secretary of State Antony Blinken described as “a credible pathway to a Palestinian state” while downplaying the idea of linking the two goals to Saudi-Israeli normalization. US officials insist that all key elements of such a deal remain tightly linked. The escalating crisis in US-Israeli relations, however, has provoked concerns in both Israel and the US Congress that the administration’s courtship of Riyadh could become a bilateral affair.

Strangely, such a development could pose problems for Saudi Arabia. After all, given Netanyahu’s opposition to a Palestinian state and West Bank radical settlers’ ongoing efforts to grab more Palestinian land, Riyadh’s hopes for a US security pact remain tied to a diplomatically cumbersome package or “grand bargain” that could quickly unravel. It will not be easy for Saudi leaders to secure a pact with Washington if the kingdom seemingly abandons the Palestinians. Still, no one should underestimate the ability of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to exploit the challenges (and opportunities) that the Gaza war has created to enhance his power at home and in the region.

Iran Redefines a Costly Deterrence

To the relief of key regional and global players, the escalatory cycle of direct tit-for-tat attacks between Israel and Iran that began with the former’s April 1 strike on the latter’s Damascus embassy did not trigger a wider regional conflict. Instead, both countries signaled that their attacks aimed to restore a fragile system of deterrence, but in what was surely a new and far more dangerous context of direct conflict. The perils of this reworked deterrence system were amply demonstrated by Iran’s April 13 missile and drone assault on Israel. Although Iran’s leaders insisted that the attack’s purpose was to restore deterrence, by sending some 300 missiles and drones across Arab skies, Iran risked antagonizing Gulf states—not least Saudi Arabia.

The possibility that the costs of Iran’s attack may have exceeded the benefits was raised by former Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. During a May Tehran forum, Zarif reportedly argued, “The most important thing we could have done after the Gaza war to pull the rug of normalization out from under the feet of Arab public opinion would have been to propose non-aggression pacts with the countries of the region.” In that, Zarif may have spoken to the possibility that Iran’s April 13 attack may have prompted Saudi Arabia to accelerate defense pact discussions with the Biden administration. Such an outcome would surely prove more harmful to Iran than any gains from sabotaging Israeli-Saudi normalization. After all, by May 2024, that prospect had been rendered almost moot by Netanyahu’s resolve to attack Rafah. Iran’s earlier optimism that it could leverage the Gaza war has now been replaced by worry that many of its efforts, including its China-brokered opening to Saudi Arabia, have not translated into the influence that the Islamic Republic sought.

Saudi Angst Revealed

While Saudi officials have avoided making extensive public statements about their evolving perceptions of Biden’s Middle East policies, Saudi media commentators provide a window into the ruling elites’ views. On March 31, Tariq Al-Homayed, the former editor-in-chief of Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote that “since Joe Biden began his term as president, his administration’s only strategy for the Middle East has been not to have a clear strategy.” This assessment is not entirely off base, but it misses the simple reality that the Biden administration did indeed have an approach. It was to expand on the Abraham Accords by bringing Saudi Arabia into an emerging alignment of states whose mission was presumably to counter Iranian and Chinese influence.

Not surprisingly, Al-Homayed did note that Riyadh tried to indulge this Abraham Accords-based strategy by giving as little attention to the Palestinian issue as possible. Instead, he argued (perhaps correctly) that the Biden administration’s early decision to remove the Houthis from the US terrorism list epitomized “Washington’s confusion,” as the United States shifted from trying to appease the Houthis in a wobbly bid to pacify Yemen, to attacking them after their forces launched maritime assaults in the Red Sea. This shift, he argued, has left “the entire region in a ‘gray area.’” If such remarks offered no clear view of the way out of this zone, they epitomized Saudi official’s growing concerns that the Biden administration was treading water.

The April skirmish between Israel and Iran clearly heightened Saudi Arabia’s concerns and helped to advance its defense pact talks with Washington.

Israel’s April 1 Damascus assault heightened such concerns while intensifying Saudi growing worries about Iran. Writing on April 8, another Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat columnist, Sam Menassa, noted that “as the Gaza war rages on, the fronts of Iranian-Israeli-Western war are shifting.” Echoing Saudi’s anti-Islamist agenda, Menassa argued that “Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal called on the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan to engage in the Gaza war,” and even to create a “Jordan Flood,” a prospect, he argued, that was underlined by the “smuggling of…explosive drones across the Syrian border,” and by Iraqi Hezbollah’s call that it was prepared to “arm thousands of volunteers in Jordan.” Iran, Menassa insisted, was behind these dangerous developments with the aim to undercut a “regional peace project whose contours are beginning to emerge through the efforts to create peace and stability in the region.”

Iran’s April 13 assault on Israel clearly heightened Saudi Arabia’s concerns while helping to advance its defense pact talks with Washington. In an April 17 column entitled “Iran is Its Own Worst Enemy,” Al-Homayed asserted that Iran’s “comical retaliation against Israel was a costly strategic mistake that cannot be easily or quickly corrected.” However “comical,” the author held that Iran’s “reckless” actions shows that it is a “malevolent actor that should not be trusted, even without nuclear weapons.” Thus, he concluded, “Iran has reminded the region that we must strive for peace and conclude defense agreements, and it has reaffirmed that allowing Iran to become a nuclear power would be a fatal mistake for which the entire world would pay a price.”

Riyadh lets Washington Take the Lead

The above views highlight the basic tension that runs through the core of Saudi diplomacy. Riyadh wants to conclude defense agreements and to advance regional peacemaking, but when it comes to Netanyahu’s government, it has no peace partner. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia must contend with an Israeli leader who has promised to launch an offensive into Rafah, creating the potential for a regional explosion that Iran will exploit. Can Saudi leaders secure and justify some kind of defense agreement with the United States without signaling that they have not turned their back on the Palestinians?

If such an agreement comes to pass it will be no easy hat trick. Still, the resolve of Saudi leaders to thread this particular diplomatic needle should not be under-estimated. Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud stated at last month’s World Economic Forum Special Meeting in Riyadh that Saudi Arabia and the United States were “very, very close” to reaching a bilateral agreement and that “most of the work has already been done. We have the broad outlines of what we think needs to happen on the Palestinian front.” Thus he suggested that a pact and an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative are linked.

But Saudi leaders have avoided defining the nature of this linkage. In  February,  Saudi officials indicated that Riyadh would accept some kind of Israeli “political commitment” to create a Palestinian state but without any ironclad linkage of the two or concrete steps toward such a solution. The Guardian reported on May 1 that “in the absence of a ceasefire in Gaza and in the face of adamant resistance from Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government to the creation of a Palestinian state—and its apparent determination to launch an offensive on Rafah—the Saudis are pushing for a more modest plan B, which excludes the Israelis.” In short, Riyadh seemed to signal that given Israel’s opposition to any idea of Palestinian sovereignty, it might move forward with a US Saudi pact that by “excluding” the Israelis, would also effectively exclude the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia must contend with a Rafah offensive, creating the potential for a regional explosion that Iran will exploit.

Ultimately, it seems doubtful that Riyadh is ready to wash its hands of both issues in ways suggested by the Guardian report. Yet it is notable that Riyadh has left it to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other US officials to reiterate President’s Biden’s view that any Gaza ceasefire must lead to a diplomatic peace process that creates the prospect for a two-state solution. White House National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby insisted on May 1 that “there just has to be a [Gaza] deal,” and that there was no “plan B.” Indeed, he added, the goal behind a Gaza ceasefire is to “get something more enduring, then maybe an end the conflict and then maybe move forward with normalization” between Saudi Arabia and Israel.” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reiterated this linkage on May 4 when he asserted that the White House policy was based on an “integrated vision” that includes a “bilateral understanding between the US and Saudi Arabia combined with normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, combined with meaningful steps on behalf of the Palestinian people,” all of which would unfold along a path that the President and his team would discuss “in the months ahead.”

Saudi leaders are letting the White House carefully stick its head out on the issue of linkage, which may make good tactical sense. This posturing also suggests that Riyadh wants to create maximal flexibility (or ambiguity) in ways that could help it distance any US-Saudi pact from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. With so many of the administration’s “steps” yet to be set out, Riyadh has room for maneuver.

The Israel-Iran Assist

Riyadh’s posturing is vital. While Biden’s threat to suspend the provision of some high ordnance weapons to the Israeli military underscores the escalating tensions between the United States and Israel, it is unlikely (although not impossible) that he will take additional steps to induce Netanyahu to do what he has avoided for more than six months: place Israel’s goals in Gaza into a larger strategic framework that offers a viable vision of Israel-Palestinian peacemaking. Whatever one thinks of Netanyahu, he has shown a striking ability to juggle multiple balls even as this act has become harder to pull off in the maelstrom of the Gaza conflict. As one leading Israeli analyst recently noted, despite Netanyahu’s continued insistence that Israel is ready to go into Gaza “alone,” it is not obvious that he actually wants a full-fledged military incursion. Although the odds are small, it is possible that, if pushed by the United States, Netanyahu might agree to some kind of ceasefire formula, thus allowing himself to survive another day.

If a miracle happens and a ceasefire is reached, Riyadh would be able to sustain the push for a deal with the United States that could include a defense agreement and major arms sales, along with US help for Riyadh to create a full-cycle civilian nuclear power enrichment program. The very idea of such a pact has already elicited opposition from Republicans in Congress. Indeed, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has asserted that “without normalizing the Israeli-Saudi relationship and ensuring the security needs of Israel regarding the Palestinian file, there would be very few votes for a mutual defense agreement” with Saudi Arabia. The potential impact of this warning, however, has been buffered by Netanyahu’s repeated efforts to avoid any meaningful discussion of the “Palestinian file.” Netanyahu’s obstinance, while serving his personal ambitions, is making life difficult for all the key players, including Riyadh, which needs some kind of Palestinian fig leaf.

In short, Saudi Arabia’s quest for a security pact with the United States faces challenges. Yet Riyadh has Iran (and perhaps Israel) to thank for creating the context for a strengthening of US-Saudi relations that few would have predicted when Biden began his presidency. MBS’s ability to leverage this opportunity should not be discounted. Moreover, the crown prince will be delighted if former president who lavished so much praise on him. returns to the White House in 2025. After all, beyond their shared love of money and political power, Donald Trump and MBS both detest Iran, not to mention the Iran nuclear agreement that Trump abandoned to the delight of his Saudi friend.

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