Could Israel and Saudi Arabia be on the cusp of a comprehensive American-brokered normalization agreement? The Biden administration certainly hopes so, and it has invested significant diplomatic capital in pushing a deal across the finish line. But there are two problems with this initiative. First, it may fail to materialize for very practical reasons. Second, even if the effort succeeds, it will not serve American interests—and may very well work against them.
On August 9, the Wall Street Journal reported that American and Saudi officials had agreed on “the broad contours” of a deal. While the White House denied that a framework is close at hand, the Biden administration continues to dispatch senior officials, like National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, to the kingdom to confer with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The White House clearly views the diplomatic effort as worthwhile. “There are still ways to travel…but peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia will be a big deal,” Sullivan told reporters on August 22.
As the diplomatic process continues, some terms of the purported deal have emerged. In return for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, the Saudis want various concessions, including concrete U.S. security guarantees, additional arms sales (on top of the $152 billion proposed since 2009), and support for a Saudi nuclear program. And Israel would have to provide some concessions to the Palestinian Authority (PA) if only to help MBS show the Arab world that he hasn’t abandoned the Palestinians.
In turn, Israel is asking the United States for a formal security agreement focused on deterring Iran. Meanwhile, Washington insists that Riyadh distance itself from Beijing in general and, in particular, deny Chinese access to its military facilities.
The obstacles standing in the way of this deal are substantial. MBS, the day-to-day leader of the kingdom, might wish to place his country’s relationship with Israel on a new footing (he even called Israel a potential ally in 2022). But he cannot afford to do so if it looks like he’s leaving the Palestinians in the lurch. Though he has been willing to take more risks than previous Saudi leaders, the Palestinian cause seems to be the exception. This is no surprise. Arab leaders may increasingly regard the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as a second-tier issue, but Arab publics still view it as a top priority. As the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” Saudi Arabia’s monarch, MBS’s father King Salman, doesn’t have the luxury of following the United Arab Emirates, whose Abraham Accords with Israel in 2020 mentioned support for an Israeli-Palestinian framework in the vaguest of terms.
What’s more, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be unwilling to accommodate Saudi requests relating to the Palestinians. Netanyahu heads a coalition government with a paper-thin majority, containing ministers President Joe Biden called some of the most extreme he has ever dealt with. These hardliners have no intention of enlarging PA control in the West Bank, let alone providing Palestinians their own state. Any attempt by Netanyahu to accommodate Saudi requests regarding the Palestinians could precipitate his government’s collapse, returning him to the political opposition after just eight months in power.
Moreover, Riyadh might reject Washington’s request to distance itself from Beijing. Like other middle powers, Saudi Arabia has become adept at manipulating great power rivalries to serve its own interests and increase its freedom to maneuver. That requires the kingdom to, at minimum, preserve ties with China, which have become stronger since MBS became crown prince in 2017.
At $106 billion, China’s overall trade with Saudi Arabia last year was nearly double the kingdom’s trade with the United States, its main defense supplier. MBS continues to court Chinese investors as he seeks to fulfill his signature Vision 2030 project aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy. In an even bolder move, Riyadh has sought Chinese help to build the ballistic missiles it can’t buy from Washington. The Biden administration is effectively asking the Saudis to handcuff themselves in exchange for a formal defense alliance, contradicting Biden’s frequent claim that the United States doesn’t pressure countries to choose between Washington and Beijing.
More fundamentally, it’s unclear how this deal would improve U.S. security. True, the Biden administration could claim success for a major diplomatic achievement. But bragging rights aside, the gains would be minimal, the costs likely substantial. The Saudis and Israelis have already made slow but meaningful headway in their bilateral relationship without touting it publicly. Last year, the kingdom opened its airspace to Israeli civilian flights. Israeli officials have flown to Saudi Arabia for meetings. Both countries’ intelligence agencies have collaborated in the past, not because the United States requested it but because cooperation served their respective interests.
As for the downsides, committing American forces to defend the kingdom risks dragging the U.S. military into regional rivalries and possibly conflicts of scant importance to U.S. interests. A security guarantee could embolden the kingdom to act more aggressively toward the Houthis in Yemen and more confrontational toward Iran—perhaps even at the risk of precipitating a wider war. All of this would be counterproductive at a time when the United States is seeking a negotiated outcome in Yemen and preserving diplomatic space with Tehran on the nuclear issue. Besides, after buying massive amounts of American arms and receiving decades of U.S. military training, why does Saudi Arabia need a security guarantee from the United States?
The U.S. military should defend U.S. interests, not those of a country that has shown no compunction in breaking with Washington on matters as varied as oil prices and sanctions on Russia. The juice of Israel-Saudi normalization isn’t worth the squeeze.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a syndicated foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Newsweek.
Rajan Menon is the director of the grand strategy program at Defense Priorities, a professor emeritus at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York, and a Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.