Since Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) concluded the Oslo Accords 30 years ago, the US has made formalising Israel’s relations with the rest of the Arab world its top policy goal in the Middle East.
Even though some half a dozen Arab countries have already either signed peace treaties or established diplomatic relations with Israel, successive US administrations have focused their efforts on luring Saudi Arabia into the delicate process.
The task reflects the centrality of both Israel and the oil-rich Kingdom in US Middle East policy and their crucial role on the regional geopolitical chessboard.
But the ongoing talks to secure a Saudi agreement beg the question of whether this effort will be any different from previous US bids to bring lasting peace to the Middle East.
Will it succeed, or will be it just another travesty?
Over recent months, the US media has been awash with reports about the Biden administration discussing a “grand bargain” with Saudi Arabia involving normalisation with Israel. But the accounts of secret diplomatic discussions with Riyadh have remained clumsy or even skewed.
The reports, mostly attributed to anonymous sources, have suggested that the Biden administration is investing much effort in reaching a mega-deal with Saudi Arabia that would amount to a US-Saudi defence treaty and include security guarantees, armaments, and assistance with a civilian nuclear programme with uranium-enrichment capacity.
Top US officials including President Joe Biden have hinted a deal could be on the way following months of talks and visits to Riyadh by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, with some reports indicating that the broad contours of a cooperation deal could now be reachable.
The US efforts were reportedly given a significant push during discussions between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Sullivan with Saudi Crown Prince and the Kingdom’s de facto ruler Mohamed bin Salman.
However, beyond diplomatic conversations and messaging, the details of the deal remain sketchy, and it is unclear if an agreement is imminent.
The biggest issue that has loomed over the talks has been normalising relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which the Biden administration has made a top policy goal in the Middle East as it formulates a major diplomatic drive in the region.
The approach has been part of US strategy after the PLO and Israel signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, aiming to use its influence and special relations to make the Arab world accommodate Israel in the Middle East regional order.
To back up the talks, the Biden administration seems to have initiated contacts with both Israel and the Palestinians in order to involve them both in a prospective deal that could require some concessions from both sides.
Ostensibly, the Kingdom has not publicly declared its terms for the prospective deal, but Saudi officials and media have on various occasions hinted at the Kingdom’s long-time policy of supporting Palestinian statehood.
This is one sign among others that the talks on normalising Saudi-Israeli relations are forthcoming, but that they might come with strings attached.
If normalisation does happen, it will mean that the Saudi leadership has a new outlook on the Middle East’s future, while it tries to get as much as it can in the process.
Historically, Saudi Arabia, home to two of Islam’s holiest sites, has resisted pressure from successive US administrations to recognise Israel, although Riyadh has carefully tailored its position to assure Washington that its rejection will not jeopardise their special relationship.
In the midst of frenzied US efforts to revive the Middle East peace talks following the second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, the US stepped up pressure on Arab governments to promote contacts with Israel.
In response, then Saudi crown prince Abdullah unveiled a peace plan at the 2002 Arab League Summit in Beirut that suggested establishing normal relations with Israel in return for the Arab land it occupied in 1967.
The initiative, which was billed as a comprehensive plan to end the Israeli-Arab conflict, was never accepted by Israel, and though the US reaction to it was generally positive, it continued to press the Arab governments to unilaterally recognise Israel.
However, Saudi Arabia remained publicly committed to the initiative and refused to extend a hand to Israel before the latter accepted a full Israeli-Palestinian political settlement that could offer a life line to Palestinian statehood.
Prince Saud Al-Faisal, who served for some 40 years as Saudi foreign minister and was a driving force behind what was widely billed as the Arab Peace Initiative, used to invoke an Arabic proverb to say that forging normal relations with Israel prior to a peace settlement would not happen “even in their [the Israelis’] dreams.”
The question now is whether Riyadh is trying to rest one of its long-established foreign policy tenets and make a surprising 180-degree turn in order to normalise its relations with Tel Aviv even before Israel withdraws from occupied Arab land.
If Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan is to be believed, normalisation will not happen “without finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people”.
“Without addressing that challenge, any normalisation will have limited benefits,” he said on 8 June.
But if the flurry of news report about a US-Saudi deal that could initiate Saudi-Israeli normalisation is to be believed, the Kingdom is about to make a major strategic choice. This would be a historic break with its past and an assertion of its emerging role in a newly shaped Middle East.
Signs are emerging that Saudi Arabia is already offering a few carrots for normalisation to take place. The Kingdom has hosted a meeting between Brett McGurk, US National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, and top Palestinian officials in a bid to reach understandings on a possible deal. It has also unveiled plans for ports and a railway corridor that will link India with Israel via its territory.
Riyadh even broke some old policy taboos when it invited an Israeli delegation to a UNESCO meeting in the Kingdom this month, marking the country’s first publicly announced visit to Saudi Arabia.
This surprising 180-degree turnaround has not been met with instant disapproval from the Saudi public.
Saudi officials have so far kept tight-lipped about the details of their talks with the Biden administration, but reports say that the Kingdom is quietly negotiating some preconditions for the would-be historic deal.
Riyadh reportedly wants security guarantees from the US in exchange for normalising ties that include NATO-like security arrangements, in addition to advanced arms sales and US assistance for a civilian nuclear programme.
According to US reports, the Saudis are said to be asking for a binding commitment from the US to defend the Kingdom if it comes under attack by a foreign power and probably also internal threats as well.
As the outcome of the talks remains anyone’s guess for the moment, questions are being raised about the benefits of the potential agreement to the three sides involved.
Apart from a diplomatic victory, the main advantage to the US will of course be consolidating its presence in the Middle East in the face of increasing Chinese and Russian influence.
For Israel, establishing formal ties with Saudi Arabia would be its greatest diplomatic breakthrough since the 1979 Camp David Peace Treaty with Egypt. It would also mark the demise of the Arab Peace Initiative and its land-for-peace premises.
Unlike the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, which signed normalisation agreements with Israel in 2020 and 2021, Saudi Arabia hopes to make far-reaching gains from any agreement, especially in terms of geopolitical opportunities and regional leadership.
The Kingdom’s hopes are centred on an image of a rising Saudi Arabia under Bin Salman’s leadership, which is being presented as confident, capable, and better equipped than other Arab countries to push the world to alter its ways of looking at the region.
Yet, there is still scepticism that the Biden administration will be able to make such a huge commitment to a prospective arrangement that could compel US intervention to protect Saudi Arabia and that might come at the cost of other US partners in the Middle East and its overall regional strategy.
Israel, on the other hand, hopes that the deal will open the way to a flood of follow-on normalisation agreements. However, under no circumstances will a far-right government in Jerusalem make significant concessions to the Palestinians, such as accepting an independent Palestinian state or withdrawing from the West Bank as part of any deal with Saudi Arabia.
As in previous normalisation agreements since the Peace Treaty with Egypt in 1979, the objective of saving the day for Israel and keeping it as an uncontested regional power remains paramount for both Washington and Tel Aviv.
In the new triangular framework, a rising Saudi Arabia can only expect that with this deal it would be able to move forward aggressively to champion the Arab world, pursuing compromises in a complex regional and global environment and eyeing increasing political influence.
However, the idea of a “Saudi moment” of national renaissance and regional leadership that could come from the deal has yet to materialise.
The new normalisation agreement with Israel is unlikely to give the Palestinians what they want and need, apart from probably lavishing a few hundred million dollars on the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority (PA) and investing in the Palestinian economy as incentives for calm.
When it happens, the Saudi-Israeli rapprochement will by necessity be different from its predecessors because it will drastically change the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict and will reshape the Middle East.
From the Israeli and US perspective, the essence of the Arab-Israel détente is to forgo the land-for-peace equation, and nothing would be more suited to closing that chapter in the Arab-Israeli conflict than the author of the Arab Peace Initiative joining the normalisation club.
However, to get a glimpse of where the politics of the Middle East may travel, the best guide is the dynamics of the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation and the deteriorating living conditions of the Palestinians. They have actually set back peace opportunities in the region and triggered a decline in Arab popular opinion towards normalisation.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly