America’s pursuit of Saudi-Israel rapprochement

Ironically, the Biden administration’s diplomacy is taking place under challenging circumstances, but its global fallout could be quite profound

Updated - August 05, 2023 02:00 am IST

Published - August 05, 2023 12:08 am IST

‘While the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel may converge at the proposed reconciliation, their respective motives differ’

‘While the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel may converge at the proposed reconciliation, their respective motives differ’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The proverbial propensity of the ‘Middle East’ to spring surprises is on call again. This time it is about the chances of success of dogged, albeit quiet, United States diplomacy to reconcile two regional powerhouses, viz. Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Ironically, this quest by the Biden administration is taking place under challenging circumstances. The White House has had tepid relations with leaders of both countries, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman. Mr. Netanyahu heads an extreme right-wing coalition determined to accelerate the Jewish settlements in the Occupied West Bank and curb the judiciary’s independence — the U.S. strongly opposes both. Under the Saudi Crown Prince, initially ostracised by the Biden Administration for his alleged involvement in the Jamal Khashoggi murder, the Kingdom has been nonchalant towards Washington.

Saudi initiatives

After nearly eight decades of the U.S.-Saudi “Energy for Security” compact of 1945, Riyadh has been assiduously diversifying its strategic options. It has reconciled, at least tactically, with its arch-enemy Iran through Chinese mediation, hosted the Chinese President for three summits in Riyadh (President Xi Jinping met separately with his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab Countries), cooperated with Russia under the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries-Plus (OPEC+) rubric for higher oil prices and facilitated the return of Syria to the Arab fold. All these in-your-face Saudi initiatives challenge the U.S. interests. They disserve President Joe Biden’s bid for re-election next year. Against this obstructive backdrop, the White House has waged a concerted campaign to persuade Saudi Arabia to normalise its relations with Israel. The proposal has been on the Saudi table since November 2020 when the Saudi Crown Prince and Mr. Netanyahu had an unpublicised meeting in Neom, Saudi Arabia, in the presence of the then-U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. It has gained traction in recent months with the U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visiting Saudi Arabia to be received by the Saudi Crown Prince. While the Saudis have not rejected the idea out of hand, they have reportedly put forth daunting pre-conditions said to include North Atlantic Treaty Organization-like U.S. security guarantees, access to advanced American weapons systems, approval for the acquisition of civilian nuclear technology, and an Israeli commitment to a process leading to a two-state solution with the Palestinians. The specifics are under negotiation among the three tight-lipped stakeholders.

A convergence, but with different motives

While the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel may converge at the proposed reconciliation, their respective motives differ. First, the Biden administration, deeply concerned with the growing ingress by China and Russia in the ‘Middle East’, wants to re-entrench the Pax Americana over the region by bringing two traditionally pro-west regional players together. It also feels that fostering such a reconciliation would ingratiate Mr. Biden with the two miffed leaders. Lastly, the powerful Jewish lobby’s gratitude would help Mr. Biden win the U.S. presidential election next year.

Saudi Arabia under the Saudi Crown Prince has adopted an assertive and ambitious foreign policy, commensurate with its oil wealth, to become primus inter pares for the region and emerge as an important global player. By reconciling with Israel, it takes away the first movers’ advantage that the United Arab Emirates has had for the past three years as a member of the “Abraham Accords”. Moreover, diplomatic ties with Israel would balance the Kingdom’s recent reconciliation with Iran and Syria and help it emerge as a more nationalist power than an Islamic one. Despite its moves, Riyadh needs a stronger U.S. security commitment and access to Israeli technology. The Saudi Crown Prince may, however, need to mitigate the scepticism about Israel at home and within Al-Saud.

For Israel, a Star of David flying in Riyadh would be a major geopolitical victory, symbolising its final acceptance as a legitimate Jewish state by the centre of Islam after 75 years as a regional outcast. Given the Kingdom’s trendsetting role as the custodian of Islam’s two holy shrines, the Riyadh-Tel Aviv détente would herald Israel’s integration with the Arab-Islamic world. It would provide direct air and land access to Asia, enabling better leveraging of the economic opportunities as the economic centre of gravity shifts eastwards.

The wider impact

The global fallout from such a development would be quite profound. The Islamic mainstream would likely follow the Saudi lead, with countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia in the first row. However, it would further marginalise the “Palestinians’ Cause” and may polarise and radicalise them and other opponents of Israel such as Iran and Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic State.

Having invested considerable diplomatic capital in this quest, the U.S. may eventually succeed despite the formidable odds, particularly as the Israeli government would have to moderate some of its hard-held policies.

Saudi-Israeli rapprochement would have a mildly positive impact on India. It would remove a contradiction in India’s regional policy and better align Saudi Arabia with us. It may open opportunities as the U.S. pushes back China from the region. But then, it may also give Israel reasons to hyphenate India with Islamic countries, including Pakistan.

Mahesh Sachdev is a retired Indian Ambassador and an Arabist. He is currently president of Eco-Diplomacy and Strategies, a Delhi-based consultancy

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