In campaigning for the presidency in 2020, Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia “pay the price” for their human rights abuses, and particularly for the murder in 2018 of US citizen Jamal Khashoggi, but the war in Ukraine intervened. Its impact on global energy markets led to a huge increase in the politically sensitive price of gasoline in the US, forcing Biden to change his tune. He was highly criticized for his trip to Saudi Arabia in July 2022, where he asked the Saudi’s to increase oil production, and even more so when the Saudis did exactly the opposite, cut oil production in October 2022. Relations between the two countries hit their lowest point in decades.
The price of oil has declined from its March 2022 peak, inflation is less present as a major political risk for Biden and since his domestic agenda is blocked by a Congress partially controlled by the opposition, he has turned to the international area where he has more freedom of action. As many US Presidents before him, he is also tempted to try and make progress resolving some of the many issues involving the Middle East.
In the meantime, much has changed in that part of the world, especially in Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, having solidified his rule over the Kingdom, is seeking to position Saudi Arabia as an important regional and medium-sized world power, and the recent normalization of relations with his neighbors, first with Qatar and more recently with Iran, Turkey and Syria indicates he is seeking stability in the region to foster his worldly ambitions.
It is no doubt true that US influence in the Middle East has declined since the devastating war in Iraq, but Saudi Arabia and Israel both still depend heavily on US military procurement and backing, and the Biden Administration perceives the possibility, perhaps slim, to take advantage of the current moment to put together what would be a momentous deal between Israel, Saudi Arabia, the US and last and definitely least, the Palestinian Authority. Success in pulling off such a deal would clearly be a major plus in Biden’s re-election agenda. And so we can observe recent multiple visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel from senior Biden Administration officials, no doubt engaged in intense negotiations with both sides.
For the beleaguered Prime Minister of Israel, under attack both domestically and internationally, normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia would be a huge accomplishment, perhaps re-establishing his legitimacy as one of Israel’s most successful leader. For Prince Mohammed, putting together a deal with the US and Israel would give him the opportunity to reach multiple important objectives, including strengthening his position in the rivalry with Iran.
The outlines of a deal normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel are not yet clear, but we can imagine that Prince Mohammed’s wish list would include:
– A security guarantee from the US to come to its defense in case of any attack on Saudi Arabia, presumably from Iran. The US Congress would have to approve such a commitment – the US has not given such a security guarantee to an autocratic country since the end of the Korean War in 1953, and many Democrats in Congress would resist such a step;
– US help to build a domestic civilian nuclear program, a red line that Israel will have difficulty accepting;
– Broadened arms sales to the kingdom, the least difficult of any demands, even though Israel will not like it; and
– Significant but as yet undefined Israeli commitments in favor of the Palestinians, steps which will be extremely difficult to get accepted by the current hard-right Israeli Government, even though they will offer the Saudis reneging on their past insistence that they will normalize relations with Israel only if Israel accepts a two-state solution.
The US will also have demands: asking Saudi Arabia to definitively end the war in Yemen and to limit its engagement with China and asking Israel to make important commitments to improve the plight of the Palestinians.
The obstacles to any deal are clearly enormous, each party will have to give up on long-held positions, and the leaders involved don’t trust nor particularly like each other. But the potential benefits to all the parties are exceptionally attractive, so perhaps one can hope that through lengthy, secret negotiations, a path could be found for such a deal.
There are also several political issues that could kill any deal. Will the Saudis be willing to do Biden a favor that might help him in his re-election campaign? Assuming the 2024 US Presidential election pits Biden against Trump, the Saudi’s will clearly prefer Trump. He never raised his voice against Saudi human right abuses including when Khashoggi was murdered during his Presidency and he never objected to the war in Yemen. Would it not be in the interests of the Saudis to negotiate a deal with the Biden Administration, but put off a final decision until after the US election?
The political repercussions in Israel of such a deal are difficult to predict, many far-right participants in the current government will not accept what will be required, probably leading to a change in government. Could Netanyahu negotiate such a process to his benefit?
Similarly, is it politically astute for Biden to give Netanyahu the opportunity to regain popularity, when the Israeli Prime Minister has been pushing Israel in a less democratic direction and many Democrats dislike him intensely? And can Biden explain to the American public his about-face towards Prince Mohammed? Furthermore, as the deal will almost certainly require Republican votes in Congress to compensate for the loss of votes from some members of the Democratic Party, will Republicans be willing to give Biden such a huge foreign policy prize?
In the meantime, so long as senior Administration officials continue to travel to the Middle East, we are allowed to hope that a deal might, just might, be gradually taking shape.