Why Washington wants to speed up Saudi-Israeli normalization

As early as next month, Israel and Saudi Arabia could announce the launch of direct flights between the two countries, as part of US-led diplomacy efforts.

Why Washington wants to speed up Saudi-Israeli normalization

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Credit: AFP file)

In the Middle East, the United States seems to be struggling.

The March 10 agreement reestablishing diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, signed under the aegis of China, has further distanced the threat of a united anti-Iran front — one that would be ready to do anything to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The Saudi crown prince warmly welcomed Bashar al-Assad last week in Jeddah, as he returned back to the Arab League. This was to the great dismay of Washington, which had been pushing its Arab partners to obtain concessions from Assad in return for letting him back into the regional fold.

Tehran claims to be able to secure regional waters alongside its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council, while the US and its allies have ramped up naval and air patrols through the Strait of Hormuz following recent seizures of two foreign ships by Iran.

However, US President Joe Biden, who has announced that he will run again for president in 2024, still hopes to score a victory in the region, including a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

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Phone calls

A strong and, for Washington, encouraging signal: Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) called each other twice, before and after the Arab League summit on May 19, according to the Jerusalem Post.

While MBS reportedly refused a meeting with the Israeli prime minister at the time and no progress was made, Israelis are optimistic that a normalization deal would signal a major diplomatic victory for the most right-wing government in their country’s history.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said on Saturday that normalization was possible within a year, or even six months. The next day, the Israeli daily The Times of Israel reported that Tel Aviv and Riyadh “are engaged in advanced US-brokered negotiations to enable direct flights to Jeddah,” in order “to help Israeli Muslims perform the Hajj pilgrimage.” This decision could be made next month, according to the Israeli media.

These announcements come after National Security Advisor to the White House Jake Sullivan visited Saudi Arabia this month and met with MBS. Shortly before, Sullivan made it clear that a full normalization is a national security interest of the US.

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Proof of the importance Washington gives to normalization: White House energy envoy Amos Hochstein and senior Middle East advisor Brett McGurk flew to Israel on their way back from a visit to Saudi Arabia last month to report on the discussions they held.

A few days later, Ronen Levy — the director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry who has been one of Israel’s secret faces behind Arab normalization ​​— met with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Washington.

This series of meetings follows the Beijing-brokered Saudi-Iranian normalization deal in March.

“The Chinese-brokered deal has provided additional incentive for this administration to also get busy, to demonstrate that it still has influence and clout,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former negotiator in Republican and Democratic US administrations.

Before the 2024 elections

This is enough to speed up the normalization efforts, as the US president hopes to make progress in the next six to seven months before having to focus his energy on his election campaign, two US representatives told the news website Axios.

This is because if the subject was on the table before Biden’s Middle East tour last summer which was supposed to signal warmer relations, the Saudi decision to cut the OPEC+ oil production quota had rekindled the feud between the two countries, distancing the prospect of a normalization agreement.

The only concrete step forward was the opening of Saudi airspace to Israeli civilian carriers, allowing them to reduce their travel time to Asian countries.

The agreement to cede the Tiran and Sanafir Islands to Saudi Arabia, which was given the green light from Israel, is still held at by Egypt’s refusal to validate the transfer.

But the concessions are to be sought elsewhere, from an essential element in the Saudi-Israeli normalization: the US.

MBS does not intend to make any gift to the US president, who had contributed to him being ostracized by the international community and who labeled Saudi Arabia as a “pariah state” during his presidential campaign.

As soon as he came to power, Biden declassified a report by the US intelligence pointing to the involvement of MBS in the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Riyadh, which symbolically has little interest in normalizing Saudi-US relations, has given its price. And it is high. The Saudis reportedly seek security guarantees from the US in case of attacks, access to the most sophisticated weapons (much like Israel) and assistance in developing a civilian nuclear program.

These requests raise fears of a nuclear arms race in the region, to which the US and Israel are trying to find a suitable response.

“MBS has argued that the Iranians have the right to enrich [uranium] so he must have it [too],” said Miller. The US “will not agree to that,” he added.

Nuclear power and Palestine

While European efforts to convince Washington to return to the negotiating table on the Iranian nuclear file do not yet seem to be bearing fruit, there have been rumors about a possible visit to Tehran by Sultan Haitham bin Tariq of Oman, who could push for a resumption of talks.

The United States is also dismissing European fears of postponing the talks until after the 2024 US presidential election, knowing that an agreement with Tehran would be difficult to sign after the crackdown on popular demonstrations following the death of Mahsa Amini and its increased military collaboration with Russia in the midst of the Ukraine war.

According to US officials quoted by the Wall Street Journal, Washington is only considering its options.

In this context, the US administration is trying to convince the Saudis that even if their demands are not all met with regard to normalization with Israel, they will have a better chance of being accepted by Democrat lawmakers during Biden’s tenure than under a potential Republican president.

Is this a sufficient argument for the Saudi crown prince to take the step toward normalization, while his population remains attached to the Palestinian cause?

In this process, “his real vulnerability occurs not in the absence of security guarantee or delivery of sophisticated weapons delivery but in how he manages to do this,” said Miller.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury. 

In the Middle East, the United States seems to be struggling.The March 10 agreement reestablishing diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, signed under the aegis of China, has further distanced the threat of a united anti-Iran front — one that would be ready to do anything to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons.The Saudi crown prince warmly welcomed Bashar...