Gaza war gives new urgency to US push for Israel-Saudi ties

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The Biden administration is reviving talks to broker ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, part of efforts to lay the groundwork for stability and security in the Gaza Strip if Hamas can be defeated. 

It’s a complicated game of geopolitical chess, but one that has taken on new urgency amid mounting international pressure to end the war in Gaza, and to forge a path to relative peace in the Middle East. 

If executed, a Saudi-Israel pact could give President Biden a signature foreign policy win before the November election. Such a deal could also help push back on critics who blame Biden for the world spiraling into chaos. 

The president could also see Republicans rally around securing Israeli-Saudi normalization — who view it as a major counter to threats from Iran — as a counterweight to Riyadh’s skeptics in the Democratic party.

“I will do all I can as a Republican to help President Biden to bring about normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on the Senate floor in mid-January, following a trip to both Jerusalem and Riyadh. 

While Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attacks against Israel upended years of work paving the way to a breakthrough in ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh, Biden officials last month laid out their view that normalization efforts could pave the way to a Palestinian State. 

“The basic recipe, which is peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, a two-state solution with Israel’s security guaranteed, these pieces are not operating in completely separate spheres; they are linked and connected,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at the World Economic Forum in Davos. 

“They were before October 7. They remain linked today. And they are something that we’re going to have to continue to work on.”

Saudi Arabia had stepped back from the talks immediately following Hamas’s attack and Israel’s retaliatory war in Gaza. But Secretary of State Antony Blinken, following a trip to Saudi Arabia in early January, said that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told him that normalization is not dead. 

“He and virtually every other leader I talked to supports moving forward with integration, normalization, whatever you want to call it,” Blinken said in an interview with NBC. “But of course, the conflict in Gaza needs to end, and there has to be a pathway for Palestinian rights.” 

Because Democrats are the biggest hurdle on the U.S. side of the talks, due to Saudi Arabia’s steep demands, experts say Biden is best positioned to push through a deal. 

“The basic point is, if any of this needs Senate approval, it’s much less likely even a substantial number of Senate Democrats would support this in a Republican administration, but many would support it even if they have to hold their nose in a Democratic administration,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

“That’s the basic logic that underpins the idea that this works in a Democratic White House.”

Senators reportedly engaged with Saudi officials in Alula, Saudi Arabia, in January, about achieving a mutual defense pact, although there are still Democratic skeptics in Congress.

While Senate Democrats support Israel and Saudi peace, Riyadh’s demands on Washington give them pause. These demands include a mutual defense treaty similar in strength to NATO’s Article 5, protection for weapons sales to Riyadh from being held up by Congress or other oversight measures and U.S. help in developing a civil-nuclear program. 

“I think we want a situation where we have more flexibility in the region than more commitments,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Hill when asked about a security treaty with Saudi Arabia. He added he would have to look at any proposal “very carefully.”

Before Oct. 7, supporters of a Palestinian state feared being left behind in a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Salman held back from saying a Palestinian state was necessary to break through ties with Israel, during an interview with Fox News in September. 

But amid the devastation in Gaza wrought by Israel’s war against Hamas, the Biden administration, Democrats and Saudi Arabia say a pathway to a Palestinian state must be included in any deal. 

“What the Saudis will require on the Palestinian issue is clearly much more today than on Oct. 6,” said Satloff, who has engaged with the Saudis over efforts to broker ties with Israel. “And it’s not clear the Israelis are prepared to do whatever the Saudis are asking them directly, or through the Americans.”

Supporters of a deal say that fitting together all these different puzzle pieces is an enormous challenge, but possible.

“We’re going to try,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said when asked about breaking through ties by November.

“Everything has to be lined up, and it starts with security in the Middle East, so there’s no further risk factor from Hamas and a clear pathway toward two states. They’re the two building blocks to normalization in the region.”

Saudi Arabia says its most immediate priorities are implementing a cease-fire in Gaza, scaling up humanitarian aid for Palestinians there and having Hamas release more than 100 hostages it kidnapped on Oct. 7. 

“That should be followed by a return to a peace process that provides a clear and irreversible pathway to Palestinian statehood,” said Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington D.C.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected calls for a Palestinian state or ending Israel’s military operation without “total victory” over Hamas. 

But Democratic senators think the longtime Israeli leader understands the enormous value of normalized relations with Saudi Arabia: unlocking greater integration with Gulf and Arab nations and countering threats from Iran and its proxy groups across the region. 

“I think that if there is a possibility of normalization and there’s real security for Israel, attitudes change in Israel,” Cardin said.

Still, Netanyahu faces significant challenges among the Israeli public, who are in a state of trauma over Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, living under rocket fire, mourning the 1,200 people massacred that day, and in anguish for the more than 100 men, women, children and elderly still held by Hamas in Gaza.

Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said that Israeli-Saudi normalization is likely the one issue on which Israeli voters would allow any concessions related to the Palestinians. But he noted there can be a wide gap between efforts to move toward a Palestinian state and its actual establishment. 

“Saudi Arabia could play an important, constructive role toward trying to steer things toward a less awful trajectory,” Sachs said.

Part of that includes Saudi Arabia exercising influence over the Palestinian Authority, the beleaguered government body in the West Bank that the U.S. has suggested could be reformed and tasked with governing postwar Gaza. 

“There’s a variety of different things the Saudis can do, to participate in trying to stabilize the Palestinian political arena, help reconstitute the Gaza strip, rebuild the Gaza Strip in the context toward Palestinian independence down the road. I think that would be a tangible step,” Sachs said. 

Still, he said the chances are low of achieving normalization before November. 

“The proposition of normalization is very hard. If the U.S. would really undertake a defense pact and … support a civilian nuclear program — these are very controversial things in the United States, and a nuclear program in Saudi Arabia is also controversial in Israel,” he said.

“Nevertheless, there’s a great deal of upside, certainly around the current mess in the Middle East and great power competitions,” he said, referring to threats posed by Russia and China.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he sees a narrow window of opportunity but believes normalization would take extraordinary U.S. effort.

“The challenge here is that there is no prospect for an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and normalization with the war in Gaza and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza at the tempo and scale it is, and it would require a significant engagement from the United States to deliver on some substantial security guarantees,” he said.

Asked whether Netanyahu presented an obstacle to a deal — given the Israeli leader’s rhetoric rejecting a Palestinian state, a cease–fire with Hamas, or Israeli military withdrawals from Gaza — Coons dismissed this with a wave of his hand.

“As I said directly to the prime minister, ‘You’ve been telling us for years that the principal threat to Israel and the region is Iran. You have an opportunity here to produce a regional security and economic and political alliance against Iran and in favor of peace and stability. Sir, you should take it.’” 

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