Saudi Arabia and the United States are conducting complex negotiations in order to achieve a tripartite agreement that would include normalization between the kingdom and Israel and downgrading Saudi-Chinese relations, in exchange for a clear American security commitment to Riyadh, help with the latter’s civilian nuclear program, and some sort of resolution to the question of Palestine. Indeed, over the last few months, Riyadh has seen intense high-level diplomacy aimed at achieving such an agreement before the end of 2023.1 But contradictions between US, Saudi, and Israeli calculations and perspectives may impede this agreement, at least in the short term.
Despite apprehensions about Iran, and despite Saudi Arabia’s having agreed to open its airspace to Israeli commercial flights, the kingdom has so far rejected joining the 2020 Abraham Accords that were mediated by the Trump administration and that included the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. Sudan joined the accords in 2021.2 After US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s May 2023 visit to Riyadh, American efforts were renewed regarding normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, following Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud’s (MBS) having expressed, according to US sources, his country’s readiness to do so in exchange for a comprehensive security deal with Washington.3 MBS’s remarks prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to visit Saudi Arabia in June to discuss the kingdom’s conditions.4 But in an interview with CNN, President Joe Biden dampened hopes of reaching an agreement because of Saudi demands on Washington, especially regarding joint security issues, and tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, which Biden described as the most extreme in Israel’s history.5 However, this did not prevent Israeli Mossad chief David Barnea from secretly visiting Washington in mid-July to check on the administration’s efforts to achieve an agreement with Saudi Arabia that would include normalization with Israel.
And while the majority of the Saudis’ conditions concern the United States, the kingdom is insisting on securing some Israeli concessions on the Palestinian issue to justify the agreement.6 Sullivan returned to Riyadh at the end of July and met with MBS in Jeddah “to discuss bilateral and regional matters, including initiatives to advance a common vision for a more peaceful, secure, prosperous, and stable Middle East region interconnected with the world.”7 The next day, July 28, President Biden announced during a campaign stop that “there’s a rapprochement maybe under way” between Saudi Arabia and Israel.8 Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi embassy in Washington, had previously announced that “Israel has a lot of potential, normalization can do wonders; trade, cultural exchanges, but for that to happen, for the kingdom to take that step, we need that core dispute [with the Palestinians] to be resolved.”9
The Parties’ Considerations
Although negotiations are taking place between Saudi Arabia and the United States, their end goal is to reach a tripartite agreement that includes Israel. But each party involved has its own incentives and calculations, in addition to apprehensions and reservations, which make the possibility of a deal remote, at least in the near future.
Saudi Calculations: The main Saudi objective in a potential agreement is securing American security guarantees of defense in case of an attack. From available information about the Saudi position, Riyadh has three demands in this regard:
- Signing a mutual defense treaty akin to NATO that resembles the alliance’s Article 5 stipulation, according to which the United States commits to defending the kingdom in case of any military threat.10 NATO’s Article 5 stipulates that, “If a NATO Ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the Ally attacked.”11
- Securing American assistance in building a civilian nuclear reactor and allowing uranium enrichment on Saudi soil under US supervision.
- Securing advanced American weapons like the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) that would help Saudi Arabia against Iran’s medium- and long-range missiles.
As for Saudi demands from Israel, the Biden administration has given the Israelis the impression that a potential deal with the Saudis should include a “concession” on the Palestine issue that goes beyond a promise from Netanyahu that Israel will not annex the West Bank (although he does not want to annex the whole territory but only the settlements and uninhabited areas). Saudi Arabia does not want to repeat the UAE’s experience, wherein the excuse to sign an agreement with Israel was to end threats of annexation and the expansion of Israeli settlements, issues which Israel has since ignored. Saudi Arabia wants to secure a price worthy of its weight and importance and surpassing what the UAE received, especially since the latter secured nothing regarding Palestine, an aim that, at any rate, was not its declared objective.12 In brief, the question of Palestine is not essential in either case, and the principle is whether normalization with Israel is permissible without a just—even in relative terms—solution to the question of Palestine.
It is not clear how ready the United States and Israel are to satisfy Saudi conditions, which Washington considers very difficult to do. Signing a mutual defense agreement with Riyadh would mean that the United States would again be involved in the region’s troubles and conflicts, including the possibility of joining a military confrontation with Iran, and this when the US is keen to lighten its engagement to concentrate on more urgent challenges like China and Russia. In addition, a defense agreement would require ratification by the US Congress, which is not guaranteed in light of Congress’s disapproval of Saudi policies, including its close relations with China and Russia and its human rights violations.13
As for supporting a Saudi civilian nuclear program, both the United States and Israel fear that doing so would begin a regional nuclear arms race, especially since Riyadh wants to enrich uranium using its domestic resources at local installations, which could mean that it, like Iran, could theoretically enrich uranium to levels allowing it to develop nuclear weapons.14 Still, Israel has indicated lately that it could conditionally agree to this Saudi demand. As for supplying Saudi Arabia with advanced weapons, doing so would satisfy American arms manufacturers but may not find approval in Congress, which opposes the Saudi war in Yemen and has expressed its dissatisfaction with the kingdom’s human rights record.15 On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that Israel’s most extreme government to date would give real concessions to the Palestinians. And even if Netanyahu showed some flexibility on this front—improbable as it might be—it would likely lead to the collapse of the governing coalition. Moreover, the Israeli opposition will not agree to save the prime minister by accepting to join a national unity government following his project to weaken the judiciary and considering his proven untrustworthiness.
American Calculations: The United States would like to reengineer the political and security landscape of the Middle East by combining its allies and partners’ assets, including the Arabs and Israel, and strengthening their capabilities to face up to challenges, specifically from Iran, so that Washington does not have to do so. The United States would also like to focus on the Indo-Pacific region, and has apprehensions about Chinese influence in the Gulf and the Middle East in general, and about increasing Saudi-Chinese cooperation. Washington has been worried about talks between Riyadh and Beijing to use the Chinese renminbi in their oil trading, which constitutes a serious threat to the US dollar’s position as the major global reserve currency. It also wants Saudi Arabia to curtail its dealings with China’s tech giants like Huawei, which has been banned in the United States, Canada, and numerous European countries. Limiting Saudi-Chinese relations and cooperation would constitute a major change in the balance of power in the Middle East.
The Biden administration would also like to end Saudi-Russian coordination on oil prices to increase the pressure on Moscow in its war with Ukraine and to lower energy costs before the American presidential elections in 2024. As for Israel, the administration believes that in the event of an agreement with Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s political, religious, and financial status will open the door for normalization between Israel and the entire Muslim world, which would be an important legacy for Biden’s foreign policy.
Still, there are doubts that Saudi Arabia can be convinced to distance itself from China and Russia because of the substantial interests that they share, and because of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states’ efforts to remain non-aligned in the competition between major powers. Still, that does not mean abandoning the special relationship with the United States. Some observers see that Saudi Arabia may not be too eager to help Biden win a second term because of his negative stance regarding the kingdom in 2020, his ending support to the kingdom’s Yemen war effort after becoming president, and because of its possible desire to see a return of Donald Trump to the White House. Additionally, both Democrats and Republicans are, each for their own reasons, likely to obstruct a defense treaty with Saudi Arabia or supply it with advanced weaponry. Republicans are obviously not interested in helping Biden in this matter because doing so would translate into a win for him before the elections. The progressives in the Democratic Party criticize the kingdom’s human rights record and see Saudi-Israeli normalization as weakening the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state and restoring the rights of the Palestinian people. And yet others see the Biden administration’s success in achieving a Saudi-Israeli deal as a reward to Netanyahu’s government, which is trying to erode the power of Israel’s judiciary and weaken the country’s so-called democratic movement.
Israeli Calculations: Any agreement to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel is linked with Netanyahu’s political legacy; he hopes to be the Israeli leader who ends 75 years of Arab enmity with Israel and secures acceptance from the Arab and Muslim worlds of Israel’s existence and its usurpation of Palestine. Netanyahu believes that normalization with Saudi Arabia is the grand prize for Israel and that peace with the Arab world will render the question of Palestine regionally and internationally marginal. It would also make the question a local Israeli affair in which it alone can decide its relations with the Palestinians in the lands it has occupied since 1967. This is why Netanyahu appears to be ready to consider the conditions of normalization, including the possibility of Saudi Arabia’s acquiring a civilian nuclear reactor. According to Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi, scores of states have civilian nuclear reactors, including Egypt and the UAE.16
But Israel’s military, security, and intelligence institutions oppose this opinion, which prompted Netanyahu to distance them—in addition to some ministers in the political and security mini-cabinet—from the management of negotiations with Saudi Arabia and to limit discussion to a secret team of his most loyal advisors.17 For this reason, Netanyahu is today being accused of endangering Israel’s existence in order to secure his legacy and personal interests,18 because a Saudi nuclear program creates an excuse for Iran to cross the weaponization threshold.19 Moreover, and despite Netanyahu’s appearing to care about an agreement with Saudi Arabia, the latter’s demand for concessions does not reach the level of a just resolution of the Palestine question. Such issues as a desired promise not to annex the West Bank, halting settlement building, and allowing Palestinians’ free movement in the occupied territories and improving their economic conditions may lead to the collapse of Netanyahu’s rightwing governing coalition. This he is not ready to do; instead, he apparently prefers to have partial normalization with Saudi Arabia without the attendant exchange of embassies.
In light of the different considerations in the Saudi, American, and Israeli positions and the nature of the internal and external challenges each country faces, it is hard to ascertain whether a tripartite agreement will be within reach before the American elections in 2024. What is certain is that the three sides are seriously considering a partial agreement if reaching a comprehensive deal about these differences proves too difficult to achieve.
This article was first published in Arabic on August 7, 2023 by Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar.
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.
1 Peter Baker and Ronen Bergman, “Biden Presses Ahead with Effort to Broker Israeli-Saudi Deal,” New York Times, July 29, 2023, https://bit.ly/47n5rjj.
2 “Interpreting the Emirati and Bahraini Normalization/Alliance with Israel,” Situation Assessment, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, September 17, 2020, https://rb.gy/o7771.
3 Isaac Chotiner, “Biden’s Moral Calculus in Brokering a Saudi-Israeli Peace Deal,” The New Yorker, August 1, 2023, https://bit.ly/3YsXTaL.
4 Aamer Madhani, “Biden Dispatches Top Adviser for Talks with Saudi Crown Prince on Normalizing Relations with Israel,” Associated Press, July 27, 2023, https://bit.ly/45iw7Qx.
5 Fareed Zakaria, “Interview With U.S. President Joe Biden,” CNN, July 9, 2023, https://bit.ly/44YNtC7.
6 Barak Ravid, “Scoop: Israel’s Mossad Chief Secretly Visited D.C. to Discuss Biden’s Saudi Initiative,” Axios, July 31, 2023, https://bit.ly/47jBT6i.
7 “Readout of National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s Trip to Saudi Arabia,” The White House, July 27, 2023, https://bit.ly/3Kwf3Pf.
8 “U.S. Tells Israel That Saudi Agreement Requires Significant Steps with Palestinians, Report Says,” Haaretz, July 30, 2023, https://bit.ly/3qlmCRP.
10 Baker and Bergman, “Biden Presses Ahead.”
11 “Collective Defence and Article 5,” NATO, July 4, 2023, https://bit.ly/43ZdbFv.
12 “US, Saudis Discuss Israeli Concessions to Palestinians, Report,” Ynet, July 30, 2023, https://bit.ly/3OKNd3X.
13 “What MBS Wants from Joe Biden,” The Economist, July 5, 2023, https://bit.ly/3OnqTvX.
14 Yossi Melman, “U.S.-Saudi Deal: Nuclearization of the Middle East Starts Here,” Haaretz, August 1, 2023, https://bit.ly/45eoRVS.
15 Julian Borger, “US-Saudi Talks Amid Reports of Far-reaching Diplomatic Plan for Middle East,” The Guardian, July 27, 2023, https://bit.ly/3DM7gsH.
16 Melman, “U.S.-Saudi Deal.”
17 Nayef Zidani, “Israeli Security Fears of Netanyahu’s Approval of a Saudi Civilian Nuclear Program in Exchange for Normalization,” al-Arabi al-Jadeed, July 31, 2023, https://bit.ly/3Kxde4u. (In Arabic)
18 Melman, “U.S.-Saudi Deal.”