Israeli-Saudi Reconciliation Challenges

Martin Gvoth

Details regarding a potential Saudi-Israeli reconciliation brokered by the United States have begun to surface. The triangular bargain between Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States holds the potential to reshape the strategic and political landscape of the Middle East, particularly in relation to the “Question of Palestine”. However, it also possesses the capacity to trigger a range of complex geopolitical dynamics. Recent accounts of high-level visits of White House officials have outlined preliminary conditions for this agreement, suggesting that the details could be finalised within the following 9 to 12 months.

What are the terms of the agreement and the hurdles it will have to overcome? Is Biden’s version of “the Middle East Peace Plan” a realistic endeavour to succeed where previous presidents have failed?

Terms of the agreement

In exchange for normalising ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia aims to secure an official NATO-style collective security pact with the U.S., support for a civilian nuclear program, access to advanced U.S. weaponry, and concessions for Palestinians in occupied territories. However, achieving this intricate three-way agreement poses substantial challenges despite the potential gains for all parties involved.

Obstacles on the Saudi Side

Aside from the intricate landscape of domestic politics, Riyadh is confronted by the challenge of potential backlash to the deal with Israel, as the popularity of the Abraham Accords in the Arab world is waning quickly. Saudi Arabia must, therefore, consider the negative impacts of the potential deal on its Arab regional and global Islamic leadership role. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s opponents, including Iran and its web of armed militias along with the Salafist factions like al-Qaeda and the Islamic state, might capitalise on the resulting discontent from the rapprochement with Israel among certain Arab and Muslim populations.

However, Saudi Arabia’s strong interest in a security relationship with the US, together with the advanced weaponry and nuclear aid provided by Washington, might outweigh the potential backlash against normalisation with Israel.

Israel’s far-right government

The greatest hurdle lies beyond Saudi influence: making substantial strides towards a two-state solution proposing an independent State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel. This long-term Saudi condition for normalisation with the Jewish state is far from being fulfilled.  Under the current Israeli cabinet led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his pro-annexation party, Israel seems unlikely to make any concessions to Palestinians.

Even if Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu might consider this deal viable and indeed in the national interest of Israel, Netanyahu still faces a corruption trial, and his current coalition is committed to the so-called judicial reform initiatives that could protect him from potential imprisonment. To this end, Israeli concessions towards Palestinians are highly unlikely as the personal interests of the Prime Minister prevail over the national interests. Paradoxically, looking at all the stakeholders, Israel might have the most to gain by normalising relations with the most dominant Arab power in the region.

On the other hand, it is questionable whether, under the de facto rule of crown prince Mohamed Bin Salman, support for the Palestinian cause is still at the heart of Saudi’s foreign policy. The prime illustration of this is the Abraham Accords, which wouldn’t have assumed their current form without Saudi Arabia’s support. This sentiment was reinforced by Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen in an interview with the Saudi news site Elaph, where he stated that “the Palestinian issue will not be an obstacle to peace with Saudi Arabia.”

Upcoming US presidential election and nuclear concerns

In the US, the pivotal challenge resides in the Senate’s approval, contingent on the agreement’s scope. While opposition could arise from the progressive left among Democrats and the hard-right Republican faction. However, the Senate is predominantly composed of foreign policy centrists with Cold War-influenced perspectives, increasing the likelihood of approval.

Moreover, if Senators are presented with an agreement that substantially bolsters the US position in the Middle East and strengthens ties with Saudi Arabia, alongside Riyadh’s normalisation of relations with Israel, Senate passage becomes probable. However, as this kind of deal might boost Biden’s chances in a bid for re-election in the upcoming presidential election, US domestic politics might potentially pose an obstacle to the reconciliation.

The US typically offers a 123 agreement for nuclear aid to non-nuclear powers, surpassing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty’s provisions. For instance, the UAE accepted such terms in 2009. However, this framework is not well-suited to Saudi’s nuclear plans, considering that, unlike the UAE, Saudi Arabia possesses and intends to mine its uranium. Under the 123 process, Saudi Arabia would have to mine uranium, export it for processing into usable rods, reimport the rods for reactors, and then export spent rods for disposal. Such a convoluted process would not be profitable and would make little sense from a Saudi perspective. Therefore, Senate passing might be likely if Saudi Arabia allows oversight over its programme, ensuring its predominantly civilian application rather than its utilisation for nuclear armament.

Senate could take a similar position regarding Saudi’s access to advanced U.S. weapons. While objections related to the Yemen war and human rights violations persist, however, prospects of an enhanced US position in the Middle East stemming from the US-Saudi security cooperation could secure Senate approval, especially with Israel’s backing.

While the trilateral agreement offers potential benefits to all involved actors, the primary impediments to achieving Israeli-Saudi rapprochement are rooted in a plethora of political considerations. Though intricate, these concerns can be surmounted. Despite the multifaceted conditions that must be met, an Israeli-Saudi rapprochement might potentially be on the horizon.

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