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Unless Biden exerts real pressure on Israel, Saudi Arabia will not normalize relations

Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on Friday, June 16, 2023. (Nathan Laine/Bloomberg)

The Biden administration has for some time sought to dangle the prospect of Saudi recognition of Israel as part of an Israeli-Hamas cease-fire agreement that would also involve the terrorists’ freeing of Israeli hostages. It has been widely assumed that if Riyadh recognizes the Jewish State, it would do so under the umbrella of the Abraham Accords. For its part, the White House has made no attempt to dispel that assumption. Indeed, the administration initially appointed Daniel Shapiro, a former ambassador to Israel, as special envoy for the accords (he has since taken the slightly lower-ranking position as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East).

The administration’s inability to move Benjamin Netanyahu to focus on hostage release rather than indefinitely prolonging the four-month-old war, outlining a future for Gaza and curbing his extremist ministers’ more outlandish statements regarding that future — or, better yet, just firing them — has increasingly frustrated Riyadh. Earlier this week, that frustration burst into the open in response to White House spokesman John Kirby’s assertion that “we were, before the 7th of October, and are still now having discussions with our counterparts in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia … about trying to move forward with a normalization arrangement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.”

Almost immediately, the Saudi Foreign Ministry responded with a lengthy social media post that stated, in part, “in light of what has been attributed to the U.S. National Security Spokesperson [Kirby] … the Kingdom has communicated its firm position to the U.S. administration that there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognized on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, and that … all Israeli forces withdraw from the Gaza Strip.”

Rather than refer to the Abraham Accords, the Saudi pronouncement reverted to the long-standing Arab Peace Initiative that Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia first proposed in 2002 and that the Arab League endorsed at its Beirut Summit that year and again in 2007 and 2017.

The Saudi post actually articulated an even tougher position on peace with Israel than had the Initiative, since the latter offered the possibility of comparable and mutual agreed minor land swaps between Israel and Palestine, while the Saudi Foreign Ministry made no reference to such an arrangement.

Two days before the Saudi post appeared, the Kingdom announced at the World Defense Show held in Riyadh that it had purchased ten batteries of the South Korean mid-range Cheongung KM-SAM Block II air defense system for $3.2 billion. The deal actually had been signed in November, shortly after the U.S. committed itself to supporting Israel in the Gaza War. That the Saudis chose to announce deal when they did might well represent yet another aspect of their frustration with the United States, whose contractors no doubt also bid on a program of such magnitude. In addition, the Saudis permitted Iranian officials to attend the Defense Show, a marked contrast to Riyadh’s refusal to allow Iranians to enter the country after the sacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in 2016.

Saudi Arabia is not about to jettison its relationship with Washington. It continues to acquire defense systems from major American contractors — and, on the same day that it announced its purchase of the South Korean systems, it signed two major subcontracting agreements with Lockheed-Martin for work on the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system that it purchased in 2018. Moreover, Riyadh has a history of spreading its purchases among several states, including an $800 million deal in 2022 with South Korea’s Hanwha for defense support and supply chain services.

Still, both the timing of the deal with South Korea and the strongly worded statement regarding conditions for normalizing relations with Israel clearly indicate that Riyadh has no intention of letting Washington take it for granted. It is certainly possible that Riyadh’s restatement of its conditions for peace with Israel are not fixed in stone, and that they are meant to prod Washington to exert far more pressure on Israel that has been the case until now.

Nevertheless, unless the Biden administration goes beyond mere scolding and takes serious steps to force Netanyahu to more seriously consider a cease-fire and accompanying hostage release, and to outline a future for Gaza whenever the war finally ends, Riyadh not only will no longer even contemplate joining the Abraham Accords. Instead, it will not soften the tough conditions for normalization that have characterized its policy for more than 20 years, thereby throwing into doubt any prospect of a wider Middle East peace.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was undersecretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy undersecretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Abraham Accords Arab Peace Initiative Benjamin Netanyahu biden administration defense industry Gaza Israel Palestine Saudi Arabia South Korea

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