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LUKACS: The Mirage of Israeli-Saudi Peace

To what extent was the Biden administration responsible for the events leading up to the attack by Hamas on October 7?

Before the war, the administration was busy trying to hammer out an unprecedented Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement while downplaying the Palestinian question.

President Biden’s efforts to conclude a landmark Israeli-Saudi peace deal were intended to build upon the Abraham Accords signed in Washington in 2020, sponsored by the Trump administration. The accords normalized diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel. Morocco and Sudan also joined the accords later.

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), sought a hard bargain from the United States in exchange for the proposed deal with Israel. Riyadh demanded a mutual defense treaty with Washington and a green light for an ambitious civilian nuclear program, including the enrichment of uranium on Saudi soil.

Saudi Arabia’s re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iran, orchestrated by China in March 2023, raised alarm bells in the White House. Given the animosity between Washington, Tehran and Beijing, a trilateral Israeli/Saudi/American treaty would counter Iran’s regional ambitions and check China’s growing influence in the Middle East. Moreover, it was hoped that such a spectacular foreign policy breakthrough would pay off domestically by elevating Biden’s popularity before the elections.

Ultimately, were those formidable concessions, especially committing its military to defend an unpredictable Saudi royal autocracy, congruent with America’s vital national interests? Further, should the United States have sanctioned nuclear proliferation in the world’s most volatile region? Certainly not on both counts.

The Trump and Biden administrations were captivated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision of the pathway to peace with the Arab world. In his address to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2023, Netanyahu declared that “I’ve long sought to make peace with the Palestinians. But I also believe that we must not give the Palestinians a veto over new peace treaties with Arab states.” He continued, “The Palestinians could greatly benefit from a broader peace. They should be part of that process but they should not have a veto over it.”

The Saudi position on peace with Israel was outlined by the resolutions of the 2002 Arab League summit in Lebanon. It called for a complete Israeli withdrawal from all the territories it occupied in the 1967 war and for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel, however, rejected it as a basis for negotiations.

Once the White House approached Riyadh about a possible deal with Israel, the 2002 plan was no longer relevant. MBS dismissed the centrality of the Palestinian issue in any future deal as envisioned by Netanyahu.

Unquestionably, the Biden administration bought into this half-baked scheme. Publicly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “normalization (with Israel) cannot come at the expense of the Palestinian cause.” 

Such a statement, however, was issued for public consumption only. It had no real policy relevance. There was no way that Netanyahu’s Israel would make any meaningful concessions to the Palestinians. The administration was aware of that, yet it went along with the proposed treaty while disregarding its potentially dire consequences.

This cynical triple deal was meant to satisfy each player’s interests; MBS, a ruthless dictator, exploited Washington’s anxiety about China and demanded an alliance; Biden aspired to re-establish a “pax Americana” in the Middle East; and Netanyahu planned to celebrate the “deal of the century” by making peace with the most prominent Arab state. This untenable diplomatic ménage à trois collapsed on October 7. Hamas’ leaders were fully aware that once an Israel-Saudi agreement was inked, Netanyahu’s goal to crush the Palestinians’ aspirations for an independent state would be realized with MBS’ blessing.

The attack by Hamas was partly an attempt to derail the Israeli-Saudi deal, and it succeeded in aborting it. Biden acknowledged this saying, “One of the reasons Hamas moved on Israel … they knew that I was about to sit down with the Saudis.”

“Guess what? The Saudis wanted to recognize Israel.”

After the October 7 attack, the administration’s vocal support of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel has become a core component of its conflict resolution strategy once the war is over.

Advocating peace and promoting a two-state solution is certainly laudable at this juncture. But given the deep-seated mutual hatred, the rejectionist disposition of both parties, the fresh scars left by the continuing violence and the humanitarian trauma in Gaza, peace is nothing short of a pipedream.

Still, Biden’s misguided diplomatic adventure, peddled by Netanyahu and cheered by MBS, has exposed America’s gullibility and ineptitude to pursue a coherent policy worthy of a superpower trying to steer clear of the deadly Middle East quicksand.

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