In early March, The New York Times reported that the Saudis were deep in discussions with the Biden Administration about certain security guarantees it would require as its price for normalizing relations with Israel. “People familiar with the exchanges” said the Saudis were looking for “help with developing a civilian nuclear program and fewer restrictions on U.S. arms sales,” the outlet reported. The Saudi fear of Iran was looming large, apparently.
For President Biden, it was an opportunity to broker a legacy-grade agreement that would reshape Israel’s relationship with the most powerful Arab state, fulfill his pledge to build on the Abraham Accords, and repair the frayed relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, normalization would fulfill his goal of increasing Israel’s security against Iran and otherwise strengthen regional alliances, particularly with Saudi Arabia. The Times reported that while the Saudis had long insisted that they could not have normal relations with Israel until the Palestinian issue was resolved, this was not an issue in the discussions. The outlet noted the earlier Saudi support for the decision of other Arab states to join the Abraham Accords and the increased interactions between the two countries in recent years.
Within hours of the account of these discussions, however, a separate agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran had been brokered by China, calling for the restoration of diplomatic relations for the first time in seven years. One could not easily come up with a more palpable contradiction.
And there was more to come.
Despite the ostensible upending of the notion that fear of Iran was driving events in the Middle East, and consequently the Saudis were less anxious to pursue rapprochement with Israel, Axios reported several days ago that the White House is again pushing hard for a Saudi-Israeli peace deal, this time to come about before the end of the year. Apparently President Biden sees this as the only antidote to the drubbing he took when China brokered the deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia right under his nose.
Then came the news on Friday that the Saudi Crown Prince, who was hosting a meeting of the Arab League, said this:
We will not delay in providing assistance to the Palestinian people in recovering their lands, restoring their legitimate rights and establishing an independent state on the 19 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Palestinian issue was and remains the central issue for Arab countries, and it is at the top of the kingdom’s priorities.
So, unless things change, the aim is now to pressure Israel to go back to the Obama Administration-era tango about a two state solution – but let’s wait and see what the Prime Minister may come up with to counter these developments.