The Grand Bargain is a Great Delusion

The Grand Bargain is a Great Delusion

The Biden administration has wildly overestimated the leverage the proposed security treaty with Saudi Arabia affords it.

Even before the savage October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, the prospect of a real settlement was remote. Factors barring a settlement include the most extreme government in Israel’s history, a fractured Palestinian leadership, continued Palestinian terrorism, and what critical observers call a “second Nakba.” For the Israeli government, the issue is only a “checkbox that you have to check to say you’re doing it.” That is, it is to be without substantive meaning. The Biden administration apparently intends to win the consent of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with sweet talk but no threats. That seems unlikely to work in the future. It has never worked on Netanyahu in the past.  

Will the Saudis consent to a fig leaf? Their formal position is, no, they won’t. According to Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, “There is no way to resolve the conflict other than by ensuring the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.” It must “return to the forefront.”  The foreign minister was yet more emphatic in his September 23 speech to the UN General Assembly. MBS did say in his recent interview that “every day we get closer” to an agreement, but the Saudis have not publicly retreated from their 2002 peace plan.  The Saudi response to the October 7 war was to recall “its repeated warnings of the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the continued occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations against its sanctities.”

Insiders say that the Saudis will accept far less—a settlement freeze, formal disavowal of annexing the West Bank, more Palestinian control over a few parcels in the West Bank—but even these limited steps pose insuperable obstacles for Israel. Netanyahu can’t accept them without breaking his coalition. A national unity government could be formed in response to the October 7 war, but it is most unlikely to favor concessions to the Palestinians.  

Even if Israel’s acquiescence is miraculously secured, it is difficult to see why the Saudis should break so radically from past policy. Overwhelmingly, Arab and Islamic public opinion opposes such recognition if it simply ratifies existing realities of Israeli annexation and Palestinian dispossession. That includes Saudi opinion. The United Arab Emirates, the most important Arab signatory of the Abraham Accords, complains of Israel’s violation of its limited commitments under the accords and the new conditions the United States imposed on selling it F-35s (the breaking of relations with Huawei), causing the arms deal to fall apart. The Saudis have watched closely the UAE experience with the Abraham Accords. They don’t like what they see. 

Recognition of Israel bears on Saudi security. Underwriting the Israeli dispossession of the Palestinians could potentially constitute a threat to the security of bin Salman and his regime, as it might well work to undermine his legitimacy at home and his leadership position in the Muslim world. A refusal to recognize Israel, unless it consents to an independent Palestinian state, protects MBS from the accusation that he is complicit in the unjust treatment meted out to the Palestinians. 

The critical Saudi dependency on U.S. arms—much of its air force could not operate without U.S. logistical support—is often taken as a source of considerable U.S. leverage on Saudi Arabia. Still, it is also true that the U.S. defense industry is critically dependent on the Saudis, who are responsible for $13 billion in U.S. arms sales between 2016 and 2020.  The leverage works both ways. The Saudi dependency on U.S. support for key weapons systems also constitutes a good reason for diversifying away from the United States. According to MBS, it would “cause headaches” if the Saudis were forced to seek new arms suppliers, but he wants those U.S. arms without the conditions Washington wishes to impose. 

That’s probably their bottom line on a civilian nuclear industry, too. The Saudis have put this forward as something comparable to U.S. help in building its military, but they have also made clear that they are open to competing offers from China, itself on the cusp of agreement with Turkey to build a new nuclear power plant. The U.S.-Saudi negotiations are shrouded in secrecy, so it is challenging to assess the state of play with respect to these offers, but it seems evident that a Saudi deal with China would be less subject to subsequent cancellation than one with the United States. The United States, under pressure from Israel and Congress, would probably insist on conditions so onerous—it’s on your soil, but under our control—as to make the U.S. offer appear unattractive.

To the Dustbin of History

So, the grand bargain is destined to flop. There are half a dozen deal breakers. The United States has wildly overestimated the leverage a formal offer of American protection affords it. The failure of the negotiation will, in turn, underscore the limitations of U.S. power and influence in the region. 

The U.S. reversal toward MBS, from odious pariah to best new pal, has painfully demonstrated the Biden administration’s new-found appreciation of Saudi power and independence. Alarmed by the new Saudi diplomacy, the United States has been making a last-ditch effort over the past six months to get them to reverse it.  The Saudis have responded by stating conditions that they know the Americans cannot satisfy. 

Instead of taking the Saudi demands at face value, we should infer that what MBS really wants is the demonstration that the United States cannot deliver on most of the agenda he has set forth. That demonstration would justify his refusal to yield ground on Israel and his desire to maintain good relations with Russia and China while not wholly alienating the United States. Saudi diplomacy today is not about the ways and means of reaffirming its status as an American protectorate but about accumulating points for the blame game to follow the collapse of the negotiations. 

David C. Hendrickson is President of the John Quincy Adams Society and emeritus professor of political science at Colorado College. You can find out more about his work at He tweets at @dhendrickson50

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