President Biden, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman all have good reasons to try to get a peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia sealed between now and November 2024. That doesn’t mean it will happen for sure, but it’s more likely to happen than most of the world expects.
For Biden, such a deal would be a trophy foreign policy accomplishment going into a presidential election into which he doesn’t otherwise, at least so far, have much to show the voters.
For the Saudis, a deal could bring economic benefits and help to put relations with the United States back on a stable track after strains and disruption related to the Saudi assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
For Netanyahu, the deal could boost Israel strategically and redeem him politically after his attempt at judicial reform met fierce resistance.
“We’d like very much to have peace with Saudi Arabia.” Netanyahu told CNBC April 19. “In many ways it would end the Arab-Israeli conflict … because Saudi Arabia is so important.”
Netanyahu said the Saudis “understand that Israel is the indispensable partner for the Arab world in order to achieve security, prosperity, and peace.”
He noted that Israeli planes are already flying to India over Saudi airspace, with “full cooperation” from the Saudis. “I think the possibilities are endless,” Netanyahu said, suggesting that the Saudis would benefit from access to Israel’s innovative high-tech economy.
A fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, John Hannah, who visited Riyadh in November, wrote in January that he was “more convinced than ever” that an Israel-Saudi peace deal is possible. Hannah, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and to Secretary of State Christopher, said the Saudis told him they were “prepared to shake hands with Israel next month” if they could obtain agreements with the U.S. on a strategic partnership, reliable weapons sales, and civilian nuclear cooperation.
Would Biden make such commitments? And would Congress agree to them? For Biden, a White House signing ceremony for an Israel-Saudi peace deal would signal the world that America, not China, is the world’s diplomatic leader. Images from such a ceremony could help replace video of refugees desperately fleeing Afghanistan and Ukraine as the popular shorthand for Biden’s foreign policy record.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are reliably pro-Israel and would probably go along in supporting a deal Netanyahu wants that expands on the Abraham Accords reached by President Trump, Jared Kushner and Ambassador David Friedman. Democrats would hesitate to stand in the way of a signature Biden foreign policy accomplishment, especially if it is billed as accelerating Saudi Arabia’s transition away from fossil fuels.
Why hasn’t it happened yet? Biden spent the start of his administration pursuing, without success, a re-entry into the Iran nuclear deal. Headlines abounded about Biden snubbing the Saudis and about the Saudis snubbing Biden. Biden foreign policy has focused on countering Russia in Europe and limiting China in Asia. The Middle East has been on the back burner.
More recently, though, U.S.-Saudi relations have thawed. In March 2023, the State Department welcomed a $37 billion deal for Saudi Arabia to buy up to 121 Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft equipped with General Electric engines.
For all three major players, the incentives are to get it done before the presidential election rather than later. Netanyahu has been around long enough to know that few things are more perilous for Israel than a second-term Democratic president. A deal like this could help him restore some goodwill with Biden.
The Saudis might get a better deal from a Trump restoration, but good luck getting any Trump-negotiated deal favorable to the Saudis past Democrats in Congress, given reported Saudi investments in funds managed by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.
For Biden, the political boost of a deal is more valuable if it comes before the election. That urgency helps explain why the Abraham Accords came together between August and October of 2020, before the November 2020 election.
Some people may wonder why foreign policy should be subject to the pressure of domestic politics. The Saudi crown prince doesn’t stand for reelection but he knows his monarchy’s future prosperity and stability, and long-term public support, would be strengthened by alignment with the U.S. and Israel.
As for Israel and the U.S., there’s always a risk that politicians will put photo opportunities ahead of national interests. More often, though, democracy works as designed.
If a U.S-brokered Israel-Saudi deal demonstrates decisively to the Arabian monarchs that impending elections motivate politicians to act in ways that please voters, an Israel-Saudi peace deal could be positive in ways beyond what almost anyone appreciates.
Ira Stoll is the author of "Samuel Adams: A Life," and "JFK, Conservative." Read Ira Stoll's Reports — More Here.
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