In an ongoing diplomatic dance involving Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration appears to have lost awareness of where U.S. interests do and do not lie. The administration has made clear that it would love to see those two countries expand their ties, preferably to include full diplomatic relations, and evidently is partly shaping its policy toward Saudi Arabia with that objective in mind. But Israel and Saudi Arabia already cooperate extensively, including on sensitive security matters. Whatever practical benefits might derive from such cooperation are already to be had. The significance of any upgrading to normal diplomatic relations would mostly be symbolic—leading to the question of exactly what such upgrading would symbolize.
The sole reason that most Arab countries have not established full diplomatic relations with Israel already is the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Israel’s occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory and its denial of self-determination and political rights to the Palestinians. It remains the official position of the Arab League that normal relations between Arab states and Israel will follow a just resolution of that conflict. Although some states have departed from that consensus, Saudi Arabia has not. This issue evidently is one aspect of Saudi policy on which the aging King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has continued to assert his authority and not defer entirely to his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Thus, what an establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, absent fundamental change in Israeli policy, would symbolize is the ability of Israel to enjoy normal relations with neighboring states despite continuing its occupation and never resolving the Palestinian conflict. The sole beneficiary of such symbolism is the right-wing government of Israel. It is a “have-cake-and-eat-it” (or have-diplomatic-relations-and-the-West-Bank) gift that successive Israeli governments have long craved.
Nobody else would benefit. Obviously, the Palestinians would not. Other Arab countries would not, not counting any side payments they receive for bestowing such a gift. The cause of peace and stability in the Middle East would not either.
And certainly, the United States would not benefit. By reducing further any Israeli incentive to resolve the festering conflict with the Palestinians, such a development would be contrary to U.S. interests by prolonging a region-wide source of tension and resentment in which the United States habitually gets associated with Israeli misdeeds.
Any establishment of Saudi-Israeli diplomatic relations would follow the so-called “Abraham Accords,” in which Bahrain, Morocco, and the UAE upgraded their relations with Israel. Heavily promoted by the Trump administration as “peace agreements,” this upgrading was nothing of the sort. Like Saudi Arabia, these Arab countries were not at war with Israel and already maintained extensive security and other cooperation with it.
Events since that upgrading provide reminders that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with all the pains and instabilities associated with it, is not going away no matter how many diplomatic agreements are reached with Arab states. Israeli-Palestinian violence has surged. Last year was the deadliest for Israelis since 2015 and the deadliest for Palestinians—146 of whom Israeli forces killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem—since the United Nations started keeping records of such violence in 2005.
But Israeli hardliners, perhaps encouraged by the cake-and-eat-it nature of the “Abraham Accords,” still seem to think that the conflict can somehow be sidelined or forgotten. Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, whose responsibilities also include administration of the West Bank, said the other day that “there’s no such thing as a Palestinian people.” (One might ask Smotrich—who also recently commented that Israel should “wipe out” the West Bank town of Huwara—who, if there is no such thing as Palestinian people, is living in the town to be wiped out.)
The earlier upgrading of relationships between Israel with the UAE and Bahrain not only has sustained and exacerbated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also sustained tensions and sharpened lines of conflict in the Persian Gulf. Israel sees such relations with Gulf Arab countries as an anti-Iran military alliance. That framework, and accompanying Israeli saber-rattling, serve the Israeli government’s objective of perpetuating hostility toward, and tension with, Iran. Permanent tension with Iran in turn serves the Israeli purposes of blaming Iran for everything untoward in the Middle East, weakening a potential rival for regional influence, impeding any rapprochement between the United States and Iran, and diverting international attention from Israel’s own behavior.
All this is contrary to U.S. interests. The United States has an interest in lessening, not perpetuating or increasing, tensions in the Persian Gulf region. Heightened tensions in that area risk disruption of global energy markets, risk dragging the United States into armed conflict, and impede diplomacy needed to curb or control potentially destructive behavior by regional states, including Iran.
The Trump administration’s strong push for Arab states to upgrade relations with Israel entailed damaging side payments. With the UAE, this included a sale of F-35 combat aircraft—a move that encourages an accelerated arms race in the Persian Gulf. With Morocco, the side payment was the abandonment of U.S. neutrality on the Western Sahara dispute, a move that intensified tensions between Morocco and Algeria and complicated international efforts to resolve the dispute.
Now with Saudi Arabia, such a script threatens to be replayed. U.S. officials are reportedly in negotiation with Riyadh about upgrading relations with Israel, with the Saudis making demands that constitute their price for agreeing to such a move. Meeting those reported demands would be contrary to U.S. interests and the interests of regional stability and security.
The Saudis want fewer restrictions on their use of U.S.-made weapons, which would be a license for the kind of destabilizing Saudi behavior that has been demonstrated most vividly by the highly destructive Saudi air war in Yemen. They want added security guarantees from the United States, which would threaten to draw the United States into complicity with such behavior, as has already been to a large extent the case with the war in Yemen. And the Saudis want help in building a nuclear program, which would heighten concerns about nuclear proliferation in the region in a way that—unlike Iran’s program on the other side of the Gulf—would have direct U.S. involvement.
Even if what Saudi Arabia was offering in return was in U.S. interests, what is shaping up would probably be a bad bargain. The fact that what the Saudis would do is only something that a different foreign regime wants, not something that would advance US interests, means there is no reason even to consider the bargain.
In general, the more that the states of the Middle East talk with each other through normal diplomatic channels, the more likely the region will be peaceful and stable. But it does not enhance stability to disguise as “peace” agreements what really are conflict-perpetuating anti-Iran and anti-Palestinian arrangements. For the United States to promote such divisiveness perpetuates the self-crippling Manichaeism that inhibits the United States from being a true peace-maker.
That aspect of U.S. policy—which has characterized several U.S. administrations—has precluded the United States from playing the kind of constructive peacemaking role that China recently did in mediating the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Given the poisonous nature in recent years of the Saudi-Iranian relationship, which has constituted the main line of conflict in the Persian Gulf and has involved armed conflict both in proxy form as in Yemen and more directly, what the Chinese accomplished was a genuine tension-reducing move toward peace. The Biden administration, to its credit, welcomed the agreement, albeit cautiously.
So why is the administration pursuing an unconstructive bargain that would involve buying off the Saudis so they will cater to Israeli wishes? Partly it may be acting out of a once-valid but now obsolete perception that any expansion of relations between Israel and other Middle Eastern states really would constitute a move toward peace. Partly it may be an effort to match what the Trump administration claimed to have accomplished with the “Abraham Accords.” Mostly it probably reflects the American political habit of equating support for Israeli government objectives with being “pro-Israel,” and equating that with a necessary ingredient for electoral success.
Even at the level of crude politics, what is going on with Israel and Saudi Arabia ought to give the White House, including the president’s political advisers, pause. Not only do both those countries show a proclivity for poking a finger in the U.S. eye despite all the favors the United States has bestowed on them. They also have done the same thing to Joe Biden personally, with snubs and efforts to embarrass him.
Such behavior reflects the unapologetic interference in American politics by both Israel and Saudi Arabia in a pro-Republican and especially pro-Trump direction. The administration’s current attempt to buy an upgrading of relations between those two countries is not only bad policy; it also is strange politics.
Paul Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was a National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Professor Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group. He is also a Contributing Editor for this publication.