The United States has made establishing diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel a top policy goal, according to several reports and statements by US officials. The potential deal, which would see the Persian Gulf kingdom recognise Israel and end its boycott of the Jewish state, is part of America’s wider strategy to renew and enhance its alliance with the Saudis, while once again seeking an agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear programme in return for economic-sanctions relief.
The US has been trying to persuade Saudi Arabia to follow the footsteps of four other Arab countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco – that normalised ties with Israel last year under the auspices of former US president Donald Trump. The so-called Abraham Accords were seen as a major diplomatic achievement for Trump, who touted them as a way to advance peace and stability in the Middle East.
However, the accords also faced criticism for sidelining the Palestinians and their decades-long struggle for statehood. Saudi Arabia, which hosts Islam’s holiest sites and considers itself a leader of the Muslim world, has long vowed not to normalise relations with Israel before the conflict with the Palestinians has been resolved.
But the Biden administration, which has pledged to revive the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, believes that a Saudi-Israeli deal would not only benefit both countries’ security and economic interests, but also create more leverage and incentives for resolving the Palestinian issue. According to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who regularly meets with Biden, the US president is pursuing a complex plan that would involve giving Saudi Arabia NATO-like security guarantees and helping the kingdom kick-start a civilian nuclear programme with uranium enrichment capacity. The framework would not directly involve the Palestinians, but it would include some concessions to them, such as an Israeli settlement freeze and a pledge from Israel to never annex the occupied West Bank.
The US push for normalisation comes amid heightened regional tensions over Iran’s nuclear activities and its support for armed groups across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Israel view Iran as their main adversary and have been alarmed by Biden’s efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from in 2018. The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), imposed limits on Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. The US and Iran have been holding indirect talks in Vienna since April to try to revive the deal, but no breakthrough has been achieved so far.
Analysts say that a Saudi-Israeli deal would serve a dual purpose: it would reassure both allies of US commitment and support, and it would also put more pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions and regional influence. “Biden belongs to a school of thought that views the Arab-Israeli conflict as one in which Palestinians are not necessarily the central force,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute think-tank. “He believes that the underlying root cause of this conflict is the inability of Arab states to accept Israel. And so, if that’s how you view the conflict, it would make sense that you would prioritise normalisation,” Elgindy told Al Jazeera.
However, achieving an Israeli-Saudi deal is not easy or imminent, as both sides have their own demands and reservations. Riyadh is reportedly bargaining hard for benefits like security guarantees and a nuclear programme, while also seeking to avoid domestic backlash from religious conservatives and regional rivals like Turkey and Iran. Israel, meanwhile, is reluctant to make any concessions to the Palestinians or limit its military options against Iran. Moreover, both countries are undergoing political transitions: Saudi Arabia is preparing for a generational shift in power from King Salman to his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), while Israel is adjusting to a new coalition government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett after 12 years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule.
Despite these challenges, US officials have declared unambiguously that they are seeking an Israeli-Saudi agreement.
The US-Saudi relationship has warmed considerably in recent months after a period of strain over human rights issues and oil supply disputes. A spate of high-profile visits by US officials to Saudi Arabia underscores how ties have improved amid talks over normalisation. Over the weekend, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, landed in Jeddah for a summit on Ukraine – his third visit to Saudi Arabia in just a few months. While bilateral sessions have touched on topics from terrorism to Yemen, the prospect of normalising Saudi-Israeli ties has been a mainstay agenda item, fuelling rosier exchanges even if it is still seen as a long shot.