Full Spectrum Jordan: Why Saudi - Israeli Normalization Won't Happen

An unworkable daydream gets hyped as an unworkable victory.

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(Photo: Twitter/X)
News outlets are awash (Axios, The Hill, Washington Post, CNN) in articles talking about the imminent or near-imminent peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Many people are taking credit for this almost-event - a Biden administration victory, a victory for the former Trump administration’s Middle East Peace Plan, and a victory for Netanyahu’s Israel in making peace with its neighbors. However, while these articles largely trumpet the almost-good news, very few of them contain serious analysis of the situation and the fact that it likely won’t succeed for some time. The conditions for signing this deal are threefold:اضافة اعلان
1) guarantees for Palestinian statehood
2) a nuclear program for Saudi Arabia and
3) a US-Saudi security alliance or guarantee.

Underlying these conditions are a multitude of different players and requests. Israel wants to ally with Saudi Arabia to gain recognition for Israel, give a policy win to the far-right government and make Iran public enemy number one in the region. The US wants to curb Saudi Arabia’s relations with China and pull the kingdom back to the US influence and become less independent geopolitically. The Palestinian Authority wants to get international recognition. But as time moves forward, it seems to be less and less in the interest of all involved except for the United States.

Three things you should know:The Arab Peace Initiative 2002 The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, proposed by Saudi Arabia at the Arab League Summit in Beirut, called for full normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from territories it occupied during the 1967 Six-Day War, a “just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue” as well as establishing a Palestinian state. All analyses that disregard this initiative, and instead base their conclusions on biased sources, fail to understand Saudi Arabia’s current path, its legacy, and the role it plays in the Arab world. While Mohammad Bin Salman has set the country on a new trajectory, and advanced reforms and regional and international alliances, it is very unlikely that he will disregard this cornerstone of policy put forth by previous Saudi leadership. 

Why now? 
Essentially, why should this happen now? On the side of the US, it is clear. Every US president since the 1960’s has attempted their own Middle East Peace Plan. Biden is nearing an election, and after recent CNN polling numbers, may not be the Democratic nominee for president again. A Saudi-Israeli agreement could be a foreign policy win to end his administration. Netanyahu is also looking at a legacy win. A historic agreement would remove some negative attention from his judicial changes and expanding settlements. 

However, why would this be in Saudi Arabia’s interest? Mohammad bin Salman does not have an election nearing. His father King Salman does not have a fragile coalition to tape together. They can afford to play long-term and wait - maybe for a new US administration and for a more favorable Israeli government. After all, it was Biden who said Saudi Arabia was a “pariah” and had ““very little social redeeming value” and even suggested cutting aid to the Kingdom. No amount of fist bumps can reverse that rhetoric, only realistic incentives. 

Netanyahu has said he would even step down if it would secure a Saudi-Israel agreement. However, it seems he won’t give the Saudis what they want, which is guarantees for Palestine. This government has been so notorious that even Thomas Friedman has said it can’t be a credible partner. Why would Saudi Arabia sign with an aggressive right wing Israeli government? 

In the Middle East,  the approval rating of the Abraham Accords are at their lowest. Saudi Arabia could afford to wait until public opinion would be more accepting.  Further, even without these agreements, Saudi Arabia and Israel already have communications and official visits.  Analysts such as Bruce Riedel have been writing that normalization has already occurred at the security level with a technical working relationship between the two countries. Match this with the fact that Jared Kushner of recent Trump White House fame has been an adviser to investing Saudi funds and regularly invested them in Israel's start-up culture. Now he's begun the first ever Saudi fund to invest in Israel (this may be a clear sign that Saudi Arabia is willing to take steps, just not for Biden and Bibi). Ultimately, this is not up to the US. The decision is Saudi Arabia’s and it is the one that can afford to wait.

Inherent contradictions
There are too many contradictions in this agreement to make it possible. Israel says the agreement is to limit Iran’s power, while Saudi Arabia is actively building relations with Iran. The US is open to sharing military technologies with Saudi Arabia if it will limit cooperation with China, but Saudi Arabia just allowed Huawei’s Cloud Center to open on its soil. The Palestinian Authority has decided to be a player and not sit on the sidelines, but now Abbas has opinions on the Holocaust and Hitler’s possible motives. Netanyahu says this agreement is a priority while his own Finance Minister said concessions to Palestinians are a ‘fiction’. This is perhaps the biggest inherent contradiction - Israel’s most far right government is expected to guarantee security and statehood for Palestine. Saudi Arabia is expected to give a lifeline to the Netanyahu government while asking for concessions for Palestine. The incentives are almost impossible and the players almost unwilling and the timing more than fragile.

My Take 
The nuclear program for Saudi Arabia is the real cornerstone of this agreement, as it envelops all the concerns and interests and players. It provides a security guarantee for Saudi Arabia without the need for others. Essentially, it is geopolitical independence, defense strength, and domestic pride. This is in line with Saudi Arabia’s trajectory in recent years - independence and making the kingdom a global leader, not a dependent follower.  But it's not going to happen. No Israeli security establishment will allow this. Saudi Arabia’s recent opening towards Iran makes this more unlikely.

Palestinian statehood is a murky term. The ‘two-state solution’ is so overused by different leaders who accept stronger or weaker versions of this that the term means little. In this case it would mean membership in the UN, which the US has already said that it will not guarantee or endorse, (technically the US only needs to abstain, not endorse)  Also, given the speed this current Israel government is annexing Palestinian land, I doubt they will accept it.

There is the request for a US security guarantee for Saudi Arabia. However, the US will continue to guarantee the kingdom’s security as it has for decades. Of course, interests change as Hosni Mubarak learned, but the benefit of a stronger US security guarantee is not US support, but access to more powerful technologies. 

What about Jordan? Repeating a mistake of the Trump administration, Blinken and his team have not included Jordan as a leader but a beneficiary of these talks. However, Jordan’s legacy of regional diplomacy, its role as a custodian of the holy sites, its influence with the Palestinian Authority, and its history of relations with both Saudi Arabia and Israel make it a valuable partner - and an opportunity missed by not granting it a larger role. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote an op-ed calling for a new organization to be formed to facilitate Saudi support for Palestine (ahem). Either he forgot his Middle East history or he is also making the mistake of dismissing Jordan’s influence.  I would go so far to say that without Jordan, a Saudi-Israel agreement can’t happen. 

We have seen for months that Saudi Arabia is striking a more independent path. If conditions of the deal are trying to restrict that, the deal will fail. The Biden administration (and to an extent, the Netanyahu government)  pushes for this “historic deal” which, even if accepted, would eventually turn out to be a cosmetic change such as an opening of a consulate or a new trade deal. Meanwhile, the underlying goals of the deal seem to be garnering support for actions against Russia, trade limits on China and boxing-in Iran - three items Saudi Arabia is not eager to pursue (and Israel is wobbly on the first two). 

The guarantees for Palestine are unclear and without a large role for Jordan, the agreement is unstable. The White House approach to this deal is too much, too fast. The deal for Saudi Arabia is the wrong limits with the wrong partners. This unworkable daydream may fail before the US election, while the real partners keep moving forward as interests align.

Katrina Sammour was first published on Full Spectrum Jordan, a weekly newsletter on SubStack. 

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