Why an Israel-Saudi Deal Won’t Bring Middle East Peace

February 19, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Paul Pillar Tags: IsraelSaudi ArabiaPalestineNormalizationMohammed Bin Salman

Why an Israel-Saudi Deal Won’t Bring Middle East Peace

Rather than attempting a complicated carom shot that relies on the ambitions of the current Saudi crown prince, the United States needs to look at its own bilateral relationship with Israel.


The Biden administration continues to give high priority to brokering a Saudi-Israeli diplomatic normalization agreement. The political motivations behind Biden’s seeking of such a deal earlier in his presidency were unsurprising. The previous administration had loudly touted the so-called “Abraham Accords,” which normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab countries. With Saudi Arabia the big prize yet to be won, Biden could one-up Donald Trump by reaching a similar deal with Riyadh. 

Besides, the reflexive inclination to defer to whatever Israel wants, which Biden displayed following the Hamas attack last October, was consistent with an effort to secure a diplomatic plum that the Israeli government has long wanted.


The Israeli onslaught on the Gaza Strip temporarily put such efforts on hold, as the creation of one of the worst manmade humanitarian disasters of recent times made Arab nations disinclined to make positive moves toward Israel.

With the tragic events of the past four months having demonstrated to the administration that it could no longer keep sidelining the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has repurposed the goal of a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia and made it part of a new and grander strategy for the Middle East. The central idea is that such normalization would be an incentive for Israeli leaders to move, in ways they have not moved before, toward making peace with the Palestinians.

The administration has pushed this idea in trying to defend its policies of deference to Israel and to respond to what many regard as insensitivity to the suffering of Palestinians. Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer, when meeting recently with unhappy Arab-Americans in Michigan, argued that a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be a critical step toward creating a Palestinian state.

The idea has some logic. The strength of the Israeli desire to win full diplomatic relations with more of its Arab neighbors gives normalization value as an incentive. That desire is as strong as ever for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who needs wins to counter his political and legal difficulties. 

Moreover, the Saudi foreign ministry issued earlier this month an admirably clear statement “that there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognized on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, and that the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip stops and all Israeli occupation forces withdraw from the Gaza Strip.”

But understanding the serious flaws in the administration’s strategy begins with acknowledging that upgrading the Israeli-Saudi relationship to full diplomatic ties would not be a “peace” agreement any more than the earlier upgrading under the “Abraham Accords” was. None of the Arab countries involved had actually been waging war with Israel. Several of them, including Saudi Arabia, already had extensive cooperation with Israel, including on security matters. For these countries to take the formal step of exchanging embassies and ambassadors does not advance either true regional peace or any other discernable U.S. interest.

It is also important to understand Israeli objectives in seeking full, formal relations with the Arab states and especially Saudi Arabia. One objective is to use such relationships as a further basis for a strengthened anti-Iran military alliance, thus extending the Israel policy of promoting maximum antagonism and isolation of Iran. Rather than making the Middle East more peaceful, such a development would only sharpen and intensify lines of conflict in the Persian Gulf.

The other, even stronger, Israeli objective is to enjoy cordial relations with other regional states—and to show the rest of the world that it can have such relations—despite continuing the occupation of Palestinian territory and denial of Palestinian self-determination. In short, for Israel, the upgrading of relations with Arab states is all about not having to make peace, especially with the Palestinians.

Even if the Biden administration were to reach the kind of three-cushion carom-shot deal it seems to have in mind, two major sources of slippage make it unlikely that, despite the administration’s assertions, Palestinian statehood would be brought any closer. 

One of those sources lies with Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). Like other Arab leaders, MbS has had to avoid straying too far from his public’s sympathy with the Palestinians and outrage over the devastation in Gaza, regardless of the ruler’s own private sentiments about the Palestinian issue. But what MbS wants most is favors from the United States to Saudi Arabia, especially assistance with a nuclear program and some kind of formal security guarantee.

MbS, not the foreign ministry, will ultimately determine Saudi policy on these matters. If the crown prince can get from Washington most or all of his wish list, he is apt to turn squishy regarding Palestinian statehood. This would likely mean accepting some formulation that can be depicted as a commitment by Israel to move forward on the issue, but that falls well short of guaranteeing fulfillment.

The other source of slippage is in Israel, which now has a long history of making enough cooperative noises about Palestinian self-determination to fend off outside pressures but then resisting any follow-through. That history goes back to the United Nations partition plan of 1947, which constitutes the international charter for the founding of Israel, but that, after Israeli forces captured much of the land that was supposed to be an Arab Palestinian state, never saw the latter state come into being. The history includes the Camp David Accords of 1978, which combined an Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement with a vaguer road map supposedly leading to Palestinian self-determination. Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin happily pocketed the subsequent Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty while essentially ignoring the other part of the accords. After the 1993 Oslo Agreement established a transition mechanism that was supposed to lead to Palestinian statehood, Israel ended and did not resume the follow-up bilateral negotiations that came closest to realizing that objective.

Netanyahu is at least as masterful as any of his predecessors in combining cooperative noises for foreign consumption with effective resistance against any real progress toward a Palestinian state. During his first tenure as prime minister, he made some of his own promises in the U.S.-mediated Wye River Memorandum of 1998, only to suspend implementation of the agreement (which would have involved the withdrawal of Israeli forces from portions of the West Bank) a few months later. 

Lately, Netanyahu has made statements strongly rejecting Palestinian statehood, which is part of what he wants his domestic audience to hear if he is to have any hope of salvaging his political career. Despite that declared opposition, it is not beyond Netanyahu’s wiles to make once again enough positive noises on the subject to satisfy MbS—and, in turn, satisfy the Biden administration, with its hunger for a Saudi-Israeli normalization agreement—while still effectively blocking progress toward a Palestinian state.

Thus, even if the administration were to get its much-sought Saudi-Israeli deal, the agreement would have multiple negative consequences. Subsequent Israeli slow-rolling or outright nullification of the Palestinian provisions of such a deal would leave Palestinian statehood as far away as ever. Any Palestinian violence against Israelis would give Netanyahu an excuse, just as with the Wye River Memorandum, to end implementation. The Palestinians would be given one more source of frustration and anger as words would go unmatched by deeds in granting them power over their own affairs.

Meanwhile, the normalization of Saudi-Israeli diplomatic relations probably would not be reversed, given that MbS would want to keep the favors he got from the United States. Israel, having pocketed that diplomatic prize—something else that Netanyahu would need in hoping to save his career—would have even less incentive than before to make concessions to the Palestinians in the future. Assisting a Saudi nuclear program would increase uncertainties in the Persian Gulf and raise the risk of a nuclear arms race between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A U.S. security guarantee to Saudi Arabia would mean tying the United States closely to an authoritarian state and major human rights violator that has used military force beyond its borders in oppressive and destabilizing ways.

The Biden administration is correct in finally recognizing—post-October 7—that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be seriously addressed. It also is correct that Saudi Arabia has a role to play that is related to that conflict. It was a previous ruling Saudi crown prince—Abdullah—who took the lead in the Arab League peace initiative, which is still on the table and offers full recognition of Israel by Arab states if the occupation of Palestinian lands ends and a Palestinian state is established.

Rather than attempting a complicated carom shot that relies on the ambitions of the current Saudi crown prince, the United States needs to look at its own bilateral relationship with Israel. Progress in not only stopping the suffering in the Gaza Strip but also achieving permanent peace will require the United States, in the words of former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy, to exercise “the very real diplomatic and military leverage at its disposal to move Israel in the direction of U.S. interests, rather than vice versa.”