The US-Saudi plan to end the war in Gaza and reshape the Middle East

The US and Saudi Arabia say they’re close to a historic mega-deal. There’s just one problem.

Biden walking behind Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the two enter a room.

President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrive for a photo during a summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 16, 2022. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images Joshua Keating is a senior correspondent at Vox covering foreign policy and world news with a focus on the future of international conflict. He is the author of the 2018 book, Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood, an exploration of border conflicts, unrecognized countries, and changes to the world map.

As an old saying, often attributed to President Dwight Eisenhower, goes, “If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.”

Given how torturously difficult it has been to reach a ceasefire deal to halt the fighting in Gaza, it might seem like the height of hubris that even as the Biden administration is trying to curtail the war, it is simultaneously hoping to reach an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia that would fundamentally reshape the politics of the Middle East. But advocates say such a deal may be the only way to convince Israel to step back from the war and recommit to a wider peace process with the Palestinians.

Under the potential deal, the basic details of which have been reported, Saudi Arabia would agree to formally recognize and establish diplomatic relations with Israel, Israel would take meaningful steps toward a Palestinian state, and the US would grant security guarantees to Saudi Arabia.

Negotiators have suggested a deal may be imminent. One anonymous diplomat told Haaretz that the government of Saudi Arabia “has decided to go for an agreement with Israel … as part of the rapprochement with the US.” According to the New York Times, the Saudis made clear they were “eager” to conclude the deal during Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to the kingdom. Bloomberg has reported that “officials are optimistic that they could reach a deal within weeks.” CNN reports that Saudi and US diplomats are “finalizing the details” of the accord.

This may feel a bit like deja vu. Just last September, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in a speech at the United Nations that his country was “at the cusp” of a “historic peace” with Saudi Arabia and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Fox News that “every day we get closer” to normalization.

The stumbling block that prevented it from happening back then was the Palestinian issue: While Netanyahu badly wanted the deal, it wasn’t clear he was willing or politically able, given his hard-right coalition, to give enough ground on the issue of a two-state solution to satisfy either the Saudis or the Americans.

Everything that’s happened since then — the trauma of the October 7 attacks; more than six months of carnage in Gaza — hasn’t made the politics any easier. So why is so much diplomatic time and energy still being devoted to it?

A slow thaw

Saudi Arabia has refused to recognize Israel since the Jewish state’s founding in 1948. The Sunni kingdom backed other Arab countries in their early wars with Israel and was long a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause.

In recent years, however, as the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate has dragged on and Iran’s regional influence has grown, Saudi priorities have shifted. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, now Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, is also reportedly less attached to the Palestinian cause than his father, King Salman. Riyadh has also cut its financial aid to the Palestinian Authority.

It’s an open secret in the region that there is already extensive security and intelligence cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia with the aim of containing their mutual adversary, the Shiite government of Iran. This cooperation paid dividends for Israel during the Iranian missile attack last month, when Israel’s overwhelmingly successful air defense was reportedly aided by intelligence cooperation from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.

It’s not just the Saudis who’ve been shifting. Under the Trump administration, the United States helped broker a series of deals, known as the Abraham Accords, in which several Arab countries — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan — agreed to normalize relations with Israel.

This was a landmark diplomatic development for the region, a significant win for Israel — and a major setback for the Palestinians. It showed that after decades of conflict and isolation, Arab governments were willing to make peace with Israel even without the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But not all Arab governments. The Trump team pushed hard to extend the accords to Saudi Arabia. Israel and its supporters in the US badly want normalization with the kingdom, both because of its own military and economic clout and its leadership role in the wider Muslim world, but the kingdom’s rulers held out. The other Abraham Accords countries could be enticed with what, from the US perspective, were relatively painless concessions: The Trump administration recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, while it took Sudan off a State Department sponsors of terrorism list.

The Saudis will require more.

“The Saudis have a global and regional leadership role in the Islamic world that the others don’t have,” said Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “They have [more than] 30 million people and a lot of regional factions and divisions, so they have to worry about their internal political stability as well as their Arab leadership role.”

Enter Biden

The Abraham Accords was one of the few Trump initiatives that the Biden administration was happy to pick up and build on. And though Biden had vowed on the campaign trail to make the crown prince a global “pariah” over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — the prince has denied involvement in the Washington Post columnist’s death, but US intelligence agencies have concluded that he ordered it — concerns over energy prices in the wake of the war in Ukraine, regional security fears, and a desire to counter China’s growing influence in the Middle East eventually took precedence over human rights.

Biden, who was deeply involved in Middle East politics for decades even before becoming president, has worked to reset ties with the kingdom, culminating in the infamous “fist bump” during the president’s trip to Riyadh in 2022.

The sought-after prize for the administration’s Mideast diplomacy has been, as it was for Trump’s, an ambitious three-way normalization deal. As part of the agreement, the US would give Saudi Arabia security guarantees modeled on the defense pacts it has with non-NATO countries like Japan and South Korea. According to a column this week from the New York Times’ Tom Friedman, the US and Saudi sides are “90 percent done with the mutual defense treaty.”

The deal also reportedly includes US assistance to help Saudi Arabia build a civilian nuclear program, something that the country has long sought for its own economy, but which critics fear could be converted quickly into a weapons program. The deal may also include US investments in Saudi Arabia’s technology sector and a pledge by the Saudis to continue pricing their oil in US dollars rather than Chinese currency.

As a formal treaty, the security guarantee would also require ratification by two-thirds of the Senate. That would be a tough lift, but from the Saudis’ point of view, that’s exactly the point. They want a defense commitment that will not be subject to the vagaries of US politics or which president is in the White House. “The Saudis want to know when the United States will act and when it won’t, they want it in writing,” said Ibish. “They want it ratified by the Senate, so they don’t have to worry about the JCPOA scenario” — the Iran nuclear deal which was agreed to without a formal, congressionally ratified treaty by the Obama administration, then reversed by Trump.

A deal like this with the United States would be a big ask for any country; the US hasn’t agreed to a pact like this with any country since Japan in 1960, and much less one as controversial as Saudi Arabia, which only recently extricated itself from a long and brutal war in neighboring Yemen and has had diplomatic crises with several other countries in recent years. The Biden administration may believe the deal is worthwhile on purely realist national security grounds, but likely the only way it could be sold in Congress — particularly among members of Biden’s own party, who have generally been more critical of the Saudis — is if it’s tied to meaningful progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“I think it will be hard to get a US-Saudi security agreement ratified by the Senate,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told Vox. “There’s not a lot of enthusiasm right now for getting pulled even deeper into Middle East security dynamics, and any agreement would have to have a clear, actionable pathway to a Palestinian state, which feels unlikely in the short term. But no one is going to judge a deal that doesn’t exist, so let’s keep an open mind.”

That “clear, actionable pathway” is going to be tough to chart.

The official Saudi position, dating back to a 2002 agreement known as the Arab Peace Initiative, is that it will establish relations with Israel only after the “establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state.”

Israel wouldn’t have to go quite that far in the deal under discussion — nor is there any chance it would — but it would have to commit to what Blinken has called a “practical pathway” toward a Palestinian state.

It’s not clear exactly what this pathway would look like in practice, but to satisfy the Saudis, the Israeli commitment toward restarting two-state talks would have to be “very serious,” Ali Shihabi, a Saudi commentator and analyst close to the royal court, told Vox.

This was the main stumbling block when the three parties appeared close to an agreement last fall. Netanyahu has boasted of preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state and at times has supported fully annexing the West Bank. Still, as strident as he can sound, Netanyahu’s firmly held positions should be taken with a grain of salt: He also briefly accepted the idea of Palestinian statehood, in principle, with significant conditions and limitations, back in 2009.

But the same cannot be said of his right-wing coalition partners. In particular, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, himself a West Bank settler, “would rather jump off the Azrieli Tower than agree to land transfers,” David Makovsky, an expert on Arab-Israeli relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me last September, referring to a well-known Tel Aviv skyscraper. Accepting this deal could mean Netanyahu losing his coalition and then his job, which, given his current legal troubles, could land him back in court or even jail.

The new landscape

Tricky as the politics were last fall, they didn’t get any easier after the October 7 attacks, which were at least partly motivated by Hamas’s sense that the Palestinian cause was being abandoned by other Arab states. Smotrich has said that recognizing a Palestinian state now would be a “prize” for the attackers. Netanyahu has made similar comments.

On the other side, the fury provoked in the Arab world by the war means it’s likely that “the price has gone up” in terms of what concessions will be required from the Israelis, said Ibish. In addition to a pathway toward statehood, Israel would likely also have to withdraw its troops from Gaza.

Still, while talks on normalization were paused for a time after the attacks, all three sides have indicated that they’re still interested in a deal. The past few days have consistently brought new comments from diplomats saying an agreement may be imminent. In what may be a sign of its seriousness, Saudi Arabia has even stepped up its arrests of citizens who’ve criticized Israel and the United States online. Shihabi predicts that any public backlash to normalization would be manageable since “people understand that the Saudi normalization is the only card of leverage the Palestinians have with the Israelis.”

The talks have only taken on a greater urgency as US and regional diplomats have been pushing Hamas and Israel to reach a ceasefire and avert a potentially catastrophic Israeli assault of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where roughly half of Gaza’s population has taken refuge.

As much as or even more than before October 7, it’s impossible to imagine the current Israeli government agreeing to a deal. But for supporters of normalization, that’s a feature, not a bug.

“I would not be surprised if [Netanyahu has] reached the conclusion that this coalition has outlived its usefulness,” said Nimrod Novik, a former foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Shimon Peres now with the Israel Policy Forum. Novik laid out a scenario in which Netanyahu could form a new coalition government with more mainstream partners “to replace the lunatics in return for going for the Saudi regional package, including a serious change in policy vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority.” Still, he noted that there was no evidence such a plan was actually in the works.

The Israeli public, who polls show have grown more skeptical of the two-state solution, would still have to be sold, but Novik, who served in a Labor Party government and is a longtime critic of the prime minister, conceded, “I believe the government can market it, and to my great regret, no one could market it better than Netanyahu.”

The long shot

It all sounds very neat: the war ends, the two-state solution gets back on track, two key US allies end 75 years of bitter rivalry. But making it happen requires quite a few things to go right, and without a lot of time to spare. A ceasefire would have to be reached in Gaza, the issue of Hamas’s Israeli hostages would have to be resolved, and an agreement on Palestinian statehood would have to be found that would satisfy both the Saudis and their critics in the Democratic Party. Making that happen might very well require Israel to form a new government.

In the meantime, the US presidential election is rapidly approaching, which could upend all of this. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine Democrats in Congress agreeing to a deal with Trump in the White House.

“The sun, the moon, and the stars have to align pretty close together in record time, in order to make this happen,” Aaron David Miller, a veteran Mideast peace negotiator now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Vox. Unfortunately, said Miller, “in my experience, Arab-Israeli negotiations work at two speeds: slow and slower.”

In a possible sign of frustration, the Guardian reported this week that the Saudis are also proposing a “plan B” agreement under which the US-Saudi components of the deal would be completed even without any Israeli involvement. That would seem to be a nonstarter for Congress. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), generally a strong supporter of US-Saudi ties, tweeted, “Without normalizing the Israeli-Saudi relationship and ensuring the security needs of Israel regarding the Palestinian file, there would be very few votes for a mutual defense agreement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.” Another possible plan, according to Friedman’s column, is that the deal could be presented to Congress “with the stated proviso that Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Israel the minute Israel has a government ready to meet the Saudi-U.S. terms.”

On a call with reporters on Thursday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby wouldn’t comment on the recent press reports, saying only that negotiations were ongoing and that “We still want to see normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia and we believe that that could have a significant impact on our ability to get closer to a two-state solution.”

Israeli-Saudi normalization is a dream that has now captivated two different US administrations who otherwise agree on little else, and even the seismic break of October 7 wasn’t enough to kill it off.

It may very well be the best offer on the table to induce Israel to step back from the war. At the moment, however, it’s far from clear that Israel is actually interested in stepping back.


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