A peace deal between the Saudis and Israelis could change everything

President Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 20. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 20. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The word that probably best describes the Biden administration’s efforts in public policy is “ambitious”. Most of its initiatives — from infrastructure funding to support for green transformation to aiding Ukraine — are big and bold.

Now, the White House is trying to put together another major effort that, if successful, will be a game changer: the Saudi-Israel normalization. There are many complications that could derail the negotiations. But if a deal comes together, the Middle East’s strongest military and most technologically advanced power (Israel) will be allied to the region’s strongest economic power (Saudi Arabia) — which is still the swing supplier of the world’s oil — under a U.S. security architecture. That would be a major win for Washington.

For more than a decade, the United States has been searching for a role in the Middle East that is not the old quasi-imperial one and yet secures U.S. interests in this crucial region, allowing Washington to focus on the larger challenges posed by Russia and China. By organizing a soft alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia, President Biden can rely on these two countries to anchor the region economically and militarily.

There is a price, of course, and it is substantial. Saudi Arabia wants a U.S. security guarantee and U.S. technology to build a nuclear energy industry. That includes the domestic enrichment of uranium, which the United States has never facilitated in another country. (Of course, many countries with home-grown nuclear industries enrich their own uranium, from India to France.) My understanding, based on sources in the U.S. government, is that the two sides are close to agreement on the nuclear issue — which will likely involve a U.S.-controlled enrichment facility in Saudi Arabia.

The security umbrella is reportedly not going to contain a version of NATO’s Article 5 guarantee, but rather a softer commitment to respond and take action if Saudi Arabia is attacked. This will require careful language to ensure that the clause is not invoked if Saudi Arabia precipitates a crisis, as it has in recent years. It would have to include some assurances that the Saudis will accommodate U.S. interests on the price of oil, exclude Chinese military facilities from its territory and keep denominating its oil in dollars. Assuming these issues can be overcome, Washington should open up its security umbrella to Saudi Arabia.

The truth is that, ever since the Carter Doctrine of 1980 (which declared the Persian Gulf an area of “vital” interest to the United States), Washington has recognized that intervention in the gulf region by a hostile power would threaten the economic lifeblood of the industrial world. And when such an attack took place against Kuwait in 1990, directly threatening Saudi Arabia, the United States did in fact come to the rescue of Riyadh.

The largest challenge is with Israel. This deal would be concluded with the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history, one that is trying to alter the constitutional makeup of the country and moving to make a Palestinian state an impossibility. But Saudi Arabia and the United States have a lot of leverage: Israel needs this deal more than they do — and, in particular, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces mass protests, an ongoing trial and a restless coalition of extremists. If Washington and Riyadh work together, they might be able to pull off a new U.S.-Saudi-Israel alliance that could make greater progress on Palestinian rights than has taken place in decades.

Both Riyadh and Washington should make clear to Netanyahu that he has to take hard steps to keep open the path for a two-state solution. That means a freeze on expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, an end to the legalization of illegal outposts and the opening up of areas currently under Israeli control to allow Palestinians to expand their towns in the West Bank.

This would enrage Netanyahu’s most extreme coalition partners, who want to annex all of the West Bank. But there is a way out of the impasse. As Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, told me: “Biden should present Bibi with a strategic grand bargain that includes significant action on the Palestinian issue. Let Bibi figure out how to manage his coalition or how to break it and form a new one. What Biden is proposing is good for the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Extremists in Netanyahu’s government should not be allowed to veto it”.

Netanyahu is banking on the notion that the Saudi government actually doesn’t give a damn about the Palestinians and will sell them out for token rhetorical concessions. But he might be mistaken in this assumption. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has kept his mullahs and religious conservatives at bay while he has opened up the country and implemented major economic and social reforms. He might not want to anger them by abandoning the Palestinians, as well. And if he insists, it’s possible that Biden will back him up; some Democratic senators will probably make it clear to Netanyahu that the price of Senate ratification is real movement on a two-state solution. In that case, Netanyahu will have to decide what he wants more — a truly historic advance in Israel’s security or keeping afloat his rickety, controversial, extremist coalition.

Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS. Twitter

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