Israeli officials have insisted that Israeli-Saudi peace is closer than ever, and top-ranking American politicians including President Joe Biden himself hinted that a breakthrough between Riyadh and Jerusalem could be imminent. The ongoing efforts to broker a rapprochement is not only a matter of words, and recent overtures on the part of the Saudis – granting Israeli access to Saudi airspace and hosting Israeli athletes – suggests that the normalization chatter is very real. Despite Saudi officials publicly sticking to their long-time demand that Israel first withdraws from the Occupied Territories, all indicators point in the direction of the Biden administration forging a deal that could change regional narratives, shift the balance of power in favor of the United States, and push the Palestinians to accept “defeat.” Nonetheless, amid the hype, questions remain about the transactional value of a “peace” between non-warring nations that have collaborated for many years. Although full-fledged normalization would represent a paradigm shift of some sort, historical precedent, conventional logic, and basic strategic considerations suggest that a US-brokered Israeli-Saudi normalization would not be a substitute for peace in the Middle East. The only alternative to this failed “outside in” approach is talking to the parties who remain submerged in the state of conflict: Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese, and Syrians.
Ending a State of War? Or Building on a Burgeoning Partnership?
Many Arab states have stuck to the pan-Arab boycott of Israel whereas Saudi Arabia has a history of cooperating with Israel in the Iran Contra affair, the Soviet-Afghan war, and modern efforts to offset Iranian expansionism in the Middle East. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud (MbS), the believed architect of Saudi Arabia’s drive towards normalization, famously referred to Israel as a “potential ally” and told an Atlantic reporter that Israelis and Palestinians both “have a right to their own land.” MbS’ statements have not occurred in a vacuum and the Saudi state has strengthened relations with Israel by recently procuring spyware technologies from NSO and greenlighting the Rajhi Bank’s acquisition of shares in an Israeli auto tech firm. Irrespective what transpires on the peace track down the road, Saudi Arabia’s coveted position as the unofficial leader of the Sunni Islamic world does not offer more than an additional feather in Israel’s normalization cap as well as a chance for the Biden administration to play up its pro-Israel credentials on the eve of the 2024 elections.
Grand Bargains and Horse-trading: Is the United States Game?
Commentators who have offered a glimpse into a future three-way dance assert that Saudi Arabia will not agree to normalization unless the United States blesses Riyadh’s civilian nuclear program, sells Lockheed Martin F-35s to the Royal Saudi Airforce, and gives Saudi Arabia security guarantees akin to NATO Article 5. To the benefit of the American establishment, Washington’s long standing strategic interaction in the Middle East has not been bound by institutional requirements, thus allowing successive presidents to seek short-term interests. In the post “oil for security,” era America’s military deployments have fixated on securing maritime passages, protecting oil fields, rolling back Iranian expansion, selling arms, and preventing strategic competitors from unseating the US as a military hegemon in the region – goals that can be achieved without making written guarantees to any nation.
The Myth of “Delivering” the Palestinians and Ending Arab-Israeli Hostilities
Dating back to the Camp David Accords, political analysts have estimated that the landmark peace agreements between Israel and Arab states would naturally bring an end to Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. Most recently, the Abraham Accords, billed as a warm people-to-people peace, was supposed to change historical narratives, “shrink” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and strategically realign the region. Contrary to expectations of politicians and the mainstream media, the envisaged fruits of the multilateral accord were replaced by unprecedented wave of rapprochement between quarreling GCC states, GCC and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Egypt and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Syria, the UAE and Turkey, Egypt and Iran, the Arab League and Syria, and the GCC and Lebanon. While the magnitude of the Abraham Accords cannot be compared to the potential ramifications of Israeli-Saudi peace, the presumption that Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement will bring a wider peace is short sighted.
When Palestinian factions previously used Arab soil to stage attacks on Israel, Middle Eastern leaders wielded greater influence over Palestinian guerrillas that relied on Arab patrons for multifaceted support. Yet today’s strategic climate is far different and Palestinian militants – entrenched in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Lebanon – are completely disconnected from the influence of Arab capitals that have been reduced to mediating during times of strife. In addition, a Israeli-Saudi normalization that does not fulfill the core pillars of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 could become ammunition for pro-Iranian and pro-Islamist elements that would quickly blackball the Saudis as “sellouts” and “enemies of Islam.” Undoubtedly, creating a new political schism in the Arab and Islamic world is a risky gambit as newfound tension could culminate in greater radicalization and an uptick in violence against American, Saudi, and Israeli interests. Any attempts to use Israeli-Saudi peace as a vehicle to transform historical and cultural narratives is also a nonstarter considering current trends in public opinion. According to surveys carried out by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and other pollsters, the Abraham Accords did not moderate regional opinions, and most Arabs from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula still overwhelmingly reject Arab-Israeli normalization. If the tripartite accord attempts to pander to Palestinians by offering piecemeal benefits to the corrupt Palestinian Authority, it is highly likely that the resolve of those who view normalization as strategic betrayal will only be strengthened. Based on these factors, the US is better off keeping Israeli-Saudi relations in a murky “gray zone.”
If Israeli-Saudi Peace is not the Answer, Then What is?
If the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia truly want peace in the Middle East, they must examine Israel’s immediate periphery and the state/territories that pose the greatest threats to Israel’s existence – the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Lebanon, and Syria. The importance of seeing peace through the lens of conflict settlement in Israel and the Levant underscores the fact that the sectarian state model has generally failed in the area. Israel, a regional economic and technological powerhouse shares little in common with failed regional states; nevertheless, Israel is remarkably facing many of the challenges that tore Syria and Lebanon to shreds. The ongoing Supreme Court debate in Israel, the byproduct of a conflict between religious hardliners and seculars, underpins the problems which emanate from connecting political legitimacy to religious prophecies. By pursuing a regional peace path in the ethnically and religiously dysfunctional Levant, the US and other interlocutors could effectively begin the long-term process of integrating a highly fragmented region.
Rapprochement between and its neighbors seems unrealistic due to state failure in Lebanon and Syria as well as the growing influence of pro-Iranian militant groups in the two states. Yet the unprecedented fragility manifesting in Syria and Lebanon could make the two nations perfect candidates for peace. Syria, a self-styled defender of pan-Arab causes is a shell of its former self, and President Bashar al-Assad, the son of a leader who implicitly ceded control of the Golan Heights to Israel, has not responded to a single Israeli attack on Syrian soil over the last seven years. For al-Assad or his eventual successor, signing a peace agreement with Israel could offer Western sanctions relief or a long shot deal to jointly administer the contested Golan Heights. Meanwhile, Lebanon, also in the throes of what the international community refers to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, has already demonstrated that politicians and Hezbollah are ready to work with Israel if doing so leads to tangible face-saving benefits.
In the wake of a diplomatic breakthrough with countries that threaten Israel’s existence, Israelis and an inclusive Palestinian government may have enough space to reach agreements on removing the West Bank security barrier, lifting the blockade of Gaza, and entering a free association agreement. Once the Palestinians achieve a more legitimate and representative government, Israel, the Palestinians, Syria, and Lebanon, could then discuss the parameters of a final status agreement that would transfer refugees from Syria and Lebanon to the Palestinian territories, create a Levant free trade/customs agreement, and erect a semi-autonomous Palestinian entity with unfettered access to Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and the outside world. Ultimately, removing the symbols of the humiliating occupation, ending the state of war, and brokering tangible economic agreements is far more important than haphazardly introducing a new failed state to the region – at least in the short term. More importantly, agreements that result in actual benefits for millions of people will likely lead to a desperately needed regional buy-in.
The longshot nature of such a proposal should mostly serve as a reminder that a carefully choreographed initiative that brings together elite youth from Israel and Saudi Arabia will not change the balance of power or compel bickering peoples to put aside their grievances. Moreover, revisiting the root causes of today’s political quagmire informs the masses that no conflict has ever been solved without addressing the issues that triggered conflict in the first place. Perhaps the willingness of regional countries to begin working through concrete political differences could persuade future leaders to initiate a comprehensive truth and reconciliation commission to offer respite, closure, and satisfaction to tens of millions of people who have been directly and indirectly impacted by more than 100 years of conflict in the Holy Land and beyond. Ultimately, the road to peace in the Middle East does not run through Arab capitals, and pundits should drop the fantasy that giving security guarantees and sophisticated weapons to countries that do not share borders with Israel will solve the Middle East’s complex problems.