Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has identified making peace with Saudi Arabia as among his highest foreign policy priorities. After a week-long visit to Riyadh in November with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), I’m more convinced than ever that such a peace is indeed possible. But I’m also convinced that it can’t be achieved without a major assist from President Joe Biden and improvement in US-Saudi relations.
The ground rules for our Riyadh meetings don’t allow me to attribute comments to specific Saudi leaders. But for what it’s worth, I’m confident that our sources were authoritative. On the question of normalizing relations with Israel, here’s the gist of what we heard:
“It makes sense for us to normalize with Israel. We share the same threats, enemies, and allies. But it will be difficult because for 50 years we’ve filled our people’s heads with hatred of Israel. We still have extremists. They will attack us. The Iranians will stir up instability. Our economy could suffer. Our standing as the leader of the Islamic world could suffer. The risks are real. We’re prepared to take them, but we need several things from the United States first to help us balance the risks.”
“It makes sense for us to normalize with Israel. We share the same threats, enemies, and allies. But it will be difficult because for 50 years we’ve filled our people’s heads with hatred of Israel. We still have extremists. They will attack us. The Iranians will stir up instability. Our economy could suffer. Our standing as the leader of the Islamic world could suffer. The risks are real. We’re prepared to take them, but we need several things from the United States first to help us balance the risks.
“First, a written agreement defining our strategic partnership and what the US commitment is to our security if we’re attacked.
“Second, a status that assures us that US weapons sales will be reliable. It’s intolerable that from one month to the next we don’t know anymore if the US will fulfill its commitments. We need to be treated more like NATO or Israel where we can disagree on political and economic issues, but the underlying commitment to sell us what we need to defend ourselves doesn’t change.
“Third, an agreement with the US on civilian nuclear cooperation that doesn’t require us to forego the ability to enrich uranium. Saudi Arabia possesses 7 percent of the world’s deposits of natural uranium. It’s a huge resource that we need to be able to exploit to build a nuclear power industry. We know the US is worried that we’ll use enrichment for nuclear weapons. Our solution is to do the same thing we did 80 years ago when we built the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) together. We can build the Arabian American Nuclear Power Company. US personnel will be inside monitoring and inspecting everything to ensure it’s only for civilian uses.
“If we can get these three things, Saudi Arabia is prepared to shake hands with Israel next month.”
THE OBVIOUS follow-up question we asked: Isn’t progress on the Palestinian issue a prerequisite for normalization? The answer we got was an unequivocal “no,” followed by a vivid description of a Palestinian leadership incapable of making peace with Israel for fear of being killed by its own people.
The Saudis will continue to press for a solution, but the Palestinian track is now separate from the normalization track. The latter will no longer be held hostage to the former, provided the Saudis can get what they need from the United States.
Upon our return to Washington, I confirmed that what JINSA heard on normalization was consistent with the message that the Saudis had directly communicated to the White House.
Are the Saudis serious about peace with Israel?
Obviously, there remain many legitimate questions. Are the Saudis serious? My impression was that they are, but skepticism is warranted. Are their demands for major improvements in the US-Saudi bilateral relationship being presented as a take-it-or-leave proposition, or are they more an opening gambit subject to the give-and-take of negotiations? I’m not sure, but my hunch is that the bazaar is open.
Given the huge geopolitical stakes at play, it would behoove the United States to put the Saudis to the test. Making peace with the Arab and Muslim world’s richest and most influential state would obviously be a tremendous boon to Israel, America’s most important regional ally.
It would also be a major victory for US diplomacy, on a par in terms of importance, with the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty – one that neither of America’s great power adversaries, China or Russia, could ever hope to pull off. Finally, by forging an open strategic partnership between Washington’s two most powerful Middle East partners, it would strike a significant blow against the Iranian regime’s bid for regional hegemony.
THE PROBLEM, of course, is that President Biden seems in no mood to consider a significant upgrade in relations with the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – often referred to as MBS. Washington’s bill of indictment against MBS is long and includes masterminding the 2018 murder of US-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the costly war in Yemen.
More recently, he angered Biden by rejecting a request not to cut oil production in advance of the US midterm elections, triggering a new round of threats from the administration and Congress to impose consequences and reevaluate US-Saudi relations.
With so much accumulated bad blood, can Biden still be convinced not only that the strategic opportunity to broker an historic Saudi-Israel peace is real, but that it merits the major investment of presidential time and energy – not to mention anti-Saudi political blowback – required to seize it? That promises to be one of the big foreign policy questions hanging over the last two years of Biden’s term.
Enter Israel’s new prime minister. Outside of stopping a nuclear Iran, Netanyahu has made clear that a breakthrough in relations with Saudi Arabia tops his agenda. He’s repeatedly reminded interviewers that, despite their many political differences, his friendship with Biden goes back 40 years and that he intends to leverage it on behalf of an Israel-Saudi peace deal.
Netanyahu could also have an important impact in moderating the anti-Saudi fervor of key members of Congress. Provided he can manage to prevent the antics of his right-wing coalition partners from becoming a major distraction in relations with Washington, no one should underestimate Netanyahu’s ability to persuade his US counterparts that seizing the chance for peace with Riyadh is vital to Israel’s security, and that it won’t be possible without a full-throated reaffirmation of the US-Saudi strategic partnership.
John Hannah is the Randi and Charles Wax Senior Fellow at The Jewish Institute for National Security of America and was a national security adviser to vice president Dick Cheney.
Originally published in Jerusalem Post.