The Biden administration is leading diplomatic efforts to support an Israel–Saudi normalization agreement. If achieved, a deal would dramatically alter Middle East alignments and could be sold as a historic foreign policy victory for President Joe Biden when he runs for re-election in 2024.
The drumbeat of public discussion suggests that with US support and underwriting, a deal is forging ahead. Leaders on all sides have publicly acknowledged that progress and have also made clear their demands.
The administration of former president Donald Trump, Biden’s likely opponent in 2024, brokered the Abraham Accords, signed between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain in 2020.
An Israel-Saudi deal would demonstrate Biden’s equal ability to achieve ‘wins’ for the US in the region, and counter Trump campaigning on any failure by the current administration to make progress and counter China’s influence in the Middle East.
However, the deal comes with a high price tag, not just for Biden, but also for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and Palestine’s Mahmood Abbas.
A deal would be significantly more complex than the Abraham Accords, requiring serious domestic concessions from all the leaders as part of a four-way negotiation. It will also incorporate the most sensitive possible issues in the region, including Palestinian sovereignty and nuclear proliferation.
The implications of a collapsed or imperfectly realized deal could have serious consequences. Biden should therefore tread carefully, building genuine bipartisan consensus for an agreement both in the US and Middle East.
Complex Saudi demands
Saudi Arabia has made normalization contingent on four key demands. A top priority is receiving a formalized security guarantee from Washington and US support for a civilian nuclear energy programme.
Neither is easy to deliver and both would increase access to US military technology.
Riyadh knows that it will not achieve a NATO like guarantee, seeking instead something akin to US agreements with South Korea and Japan – including commitments to mutual defence should either party face an attack. The Kingdom sees this as important for its long-term security challenges with Iran.
A treaty of this kind, which needs 67 votes in the Senate, won’t be easy for Biden to deliver. Democrats remain critical of Saudi human rights violations. And others will see the agreement as drawing the US back into the Middle East rather than focusing on challenges in the Asia Pacific.
A Saudi civilian nuclear programme will also be a hard sell for Biden domestically, especially when the Crown Prince recently announced in a Fox News interview that if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, “we will have to get one.”
Israel, long opposed to nuclear proliferation in the region will worry that in such a scenario, countries such as Egypt or Turkey would follow suit.
The Kingdom will also need to reassure the US that its increasing commercial and military cooperation with China will not affect American interests and technology.
In a shift away from the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, Riyadh has also made the deal contingent on reviving stalled negotiations with the Palestinian leadership.
Domestic public opinion in Saudi Arabia matters: the 2023 Arab Youth Survey showed only 2 per cent support for normalization. Because of Saudi’s regional stature and the Crown Prince’s future leadership, the Kingdom must be seen to obtain more for the Palestinians than the suspension of annexation that was achieved in the Abraham Accords.
Underestimating the importance of this component of the deal would be a mistake.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s predicament is the most difficult to unravel. He must weigh the costs and benefits of a Saudi deal that could usher in further normalization deals from other Muslim majority countries beyond the Middle East.
The costs are clear: His right-wing coalition government is hostile to the idea of negotiations with Palestinian leadership, instead seeking to annex more of the West Bank, making this aspect of the deal the hardest for him to deliver.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has also been feeding into the negotiation process, hoping to revive his leadership by increasing control over West Bank territory currently managed by Israel, and halting further Israeli settlement expansion alongside a Saudi-funded economic support plan.
However, Netanyahu’s personal legacy as Israel’s longest serving prime minister would be hugely boosted by normalization with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, amid corruption allegations and a fragile political situation.
Israel is deeply divided over judicial reform, with protests against Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the country’s legal system ongoing for nine months.
The prime minister must either convince his coalition of right-wing religious ideologues to support this breakthrough deal or dismantle his coalition and enter an agreement with a more centrist government with former partner and prime minister Benny Gantz.
Neither option is clear or guaranteed. Importantly, Gantz is unlikely to partner with Netanyahu without receiving a compromise on judicial reform that would in turn unravel the legal protection the prime minister needs to keep himself cleared of investigation.
With so many high-priced decisions and trade-offs on the table, delivering normalization remains easier said than done.
Because this agreement will have broader consequences for Palestinian sovereignty, nuclear proliferation, and geopolitical tensions alongside Middle East regional security, a more gradual approach is surely needed.
With so much at stake, rather than rush through a deal in advance of the US elections, Biden should work to build bipartisan domestic consensus in the US and bottom-up support across multiple countries in the region.