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‘Divorced from reality’: As top Biden aides meet MBS, experts see near term prospects for Israel-Saudi normalization, and a US Saudi security pact, as unlikely
‘It’s just too soon to know’ what progress is possible in talks to advance Israel-Saudi normalization, NSC spokesman John Kirby said Friday (July 28).
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, NSC Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and White House energy advisor Amos Hochstein traveled to Saudi Arabia to consult with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other officials on Thursday (July 27). The Biden aides and Saudi officials met to “discuss initiatives to advance a common vision for a more peaceful, secure, prosperous, and stable Middle East region interconnected with the world,” the NSC said.
“Certainly normalization is one of those things that we continue to support between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” NSC spokesman John Kirby told journalists on a virtual gaggle Friday (July 28). “It’s one of the things that we continue to talk to both of them about, and it’s certainly one that we want to see….additional progress on.”
“Now what that looks like,…it’s just too soon to know,” Kirby continued. “We’ll see what the outcomes are.”
The New York Times’ Tom Friedman, who first reported the visit, portrayed the consultations as part of U.S. efforts to explore prospects for advancing a deal to normalize Israel-Saudi relations under which Washington might extend Riyadh a treaty security guarantee.
“The president still has not made up his mind whether to proceed, but he gave a green light for his team to probe with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon of Saudi Arabia to see if some kind of deal is possible and at what price,” Friedman wrote. “The Saudis are seeking…a NATO-level mutual security treaty that would enjoin the United States to come to Saudi Arabia’s defense if it is attacked (most likely by Iran); a civilian nuclear program, monitored by the United States; and the ability to purchase more advanced U.S. weapons.”
“This would be the first time the U.S. signed a mutual security pact with a nondemocratic government since….Eisenhower did so with …South Korea in 1953, and it would require Senate approval,” Friedman noted.
‘Asking for the moon’
But several regional security experts say the United States is unlikely to extend the Saudi kingdom such a treaty-type security guarantee; some further suggest that Saudi Arabia does not expect it to, and is “asking for the moon” essentially as a stalling technique, as the Middle East Institute’s Firas Maksad put it.
“I have the sense that there’s unrealistic expectations on both sides,” Maksad said on a virtual panel on prospects for Israel Saudi normalization hosted by the Center for the National Interest on Thursday (July 27). “And the reason for that is that this process right now, and where we are in the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and the Saudis, is driven by narrow political interests and agendas and timelines rather than the political reality on the ground.”
“This is not something that the Saudis can flip the switch and deliver on without some concrete steps from the Israeli side,” Maksad said. “And we all know where Israeli politics are right now. …[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu risks his coalition if he is to attempt anything of significance towards the Palestinians, and the Palestinians themselves are in disarray…This new push for normalization, because…the U.S. administration would like to deliver before next year is I feel divorced from the political reality on the Israeli/Palestinian side.”
“The Saudis don't want to say ‘no’….so their response is to…[say], ‘Okay, fine, we're willing to entertain this, but…we want an alliance or we want an Article V defense commitment,’” Maksad continued. “And those are all….unrealistic, given the political context here in the U.S., particularly on the Hill, where Saudi Arabia remains deeply unpopular.”
“To be able to deliver a treaty,… anything that would need to be ratified by Congress, is just completely divorced from reality,” Maksad said. “I think that they're going to come up short.”
A US defense pact with Saudi Arabia “is a fantasy,” David DesRoches, professor at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, said in a twitter thread on the Friedman article Friday. The president of the United States “would not even submit a U.S. Saudi mutual defense treaty to the Senate.”
“The Saudis were promised enhanced access to U.S. weapons before, and have been underwhelmed,” DesRoches continued. “They also have seen Democratic officials calling for weapons embargoes. Bottom line: what’s discussed can’t be delivered.”
The Saudis, having seen a deal for the United Arab Emirates to acquire F-35 fighter jets following its agreement to normalize relations with Israel in 2020 stall, and the Trump administration in 2018 quit the 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated by its predecessor, are wary about Washington promises, DesRoches said.
“We have many times said, ‘Yes, yes, we take your considerations seriously, we are going to give you expedited access to US weapons,’ ….and then its bogs down, and…Congress won’t approve it,” DesRoches said Friday. “So basically, I don’t think [the Saudis] will be pawned off with anything less than a treaty. . . . . And I don’t think the administration can deliver that, or wants to deliver it, because they don’t want to have a vote on ratification.”
“I think that ultimately, Saudi Arabia will normalize itself with Israel,” DesRoches said. “But I think that they don’t want to give Biden a foreign policy victory before the election…And right now, with what’s going on in Israel, … forget about it.”
“Here come the Saudis saying, ‘we don’t just want equipment, we want a formal defense pact,’” former Pentagon official Bilal Saab, now with the Middle East Institute, said in an interview last month. “Neither is happening, neither on the UAE side, nor on the Saudi side. But they look at each other to see who can get a better deal.”
“Promising the Saudis a defense pact is a terrible idea,” Saab added. Why doesn’t the U.S. say no? “Because we don’t say no,” he said.
Security guarantee as a vehicle for reducing US military presence
What benefit would the American people get from a Israel Saudi normalization deal that might even pledge the United States to come to Saudi Arabia’s defense were it attacked?
Some proponents say that Israel-regional defense integration could ultimately help the United States be able to reduce its military presence in the Middle East, to be able to focus on other global threats, including in Asia.
“Currently, there's roughly 35,000 US troops spread throughout the Middle East,” Jonathan Lord, Middle East expert at the Center for New American Security, said on the CFTNI zoom Thursday. “The vast majority are there as a form of assurance to our partners who host them that if things go bad, we're there, we can be quickly in the region. And we can do things.”
“Ultimately, I think that is hugely costly,” Lord said. “And the opportunity cost of maintaining that force presence in both human treasure and blood is significant. And we have a duty to replace that with greater indigenous capabilities among these partners, and part of that is building up trusted partnerships, multilateral among our partners, such that they can carry a greater degree of the burden….So this makes sense even for future conflicts, that we'd be rethinking our posture presence in a way that benefits our strategic needs.”
“What gets ignored is that the status quo requires a continued US presence,” Lord said. “U.S. service members are carrying the burden, and I don't think that's a fair cost.”
Saudi analyst Mohammed Alsulami, founder and president of the Riyadh-based International Institute for Iranian Studies (RASANAH), expressed doubt the Saudi leadership is seeking a full fledged US-security guarantee.
“The security umbrella is not a Saudi demand because any American promises on this regard is a subject to change with new government in DC, and the trust on this issue is not very high due to the historical uncertainty from American side,” Alsulami said. “The nuclear issue is not a big ask from Saudi side if there’s a serious solution for the Iranian case.”
Adnan Tabatabai, a Germany-based Iran analyst who has been involved in recent track 2 dialogues with Arab and Iranian experts, said he has observed growing regional preference for Arab-Iranian détente and US-Iran de-escalation in the region.
“What regional states now can do, and this is already happening to some extent, is to encourage the Iranians and the U.S. to find some sort of minimal interim agreement that prevents the biggest, most costly developments from either side,” Tabatabai, CEO of the Berlin-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), said in an interview this month. For Biden, [that would be] the loss of US troops in the run-up to the [US presidential] election, ..to high oil prices, and some other fiascos.”
A staggered vs big deal approach
Rather than a big, Friedman-esque Israel-Saudi normalization deal, what would be more realistic near-term is a staggered approach, suggested the MEI’s Maksad.
“I think we've got to sort of scale this back,” Maksad said. “A staggered approach is a much better approach for both sides, and one that is closer to the realities on the ground and more likely to deliver.”
“So take some of these economic incentives, take some of these military incentives that the Saudis have and the Israelis also share, and work on those,” he said. “I think the President did well for himself in delivering on [Israel] overflights on his last visit to Saudi Arabia last year.” There have been a number of Israelis or Israeli dual national businessmen who can be seen around Riyadh looking for new opportunities, he said. The Saudis have also quietly let Israelis in to attend international and sporting events.
“Those are the kind of gradual, staggered things that one can begin to push forward, hoping that [with the evolving] political reality in Israel, but also here on Washington, the Saudis can be more permissive of some of the bigger things that both sides want to see happen in the future,” he said.
US President Joe Biden, speaking ahead of the NATO summit this month, seemed perhaps more sold on such an iterative, scaled back approach.
“We're a long way from there,” Biden said July 9 on CNN, responding to Fareed Zakaria’s question whether he would provide Riyadh a defense treaty and civil nuclear program in exchange for Saudi Israeli normalization. “We've got a lot to talk about.”
Referencing the Saudi agreement to allow Israeli overflights announced after his trip to the kingdom and Israel last summer, Biden said: “On that trip I was able to negotiate overflights so…Israeli aircraft could now over fly Saudi Arabia, number one. Number two, the price of oil is actually down, not up, and it's not because they have done one thing or the other.
“But the world is changing, our policies relative to renewables are real,” Biden said.
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