What price should Israel pay for peace with Saudi Arabia?

Will normalizing the Kingdom’s ties with Israel change the world?

By Hugh Fitzgerald, FrontPage Magazine

There has been lots of breathless speculation for months now, in the American, Arab, and Israeli media, about what the U.S., and Israel, must offer Saudi Arabia for that country to join the Abraham Accords and normalize ties with Israel.

More on the latest comments about a possible diplomatic breakthrough, during National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s visit to Riyadh to continue negotiations, can be found here: “Biden mulls Saudi deal forcing Netanyahu to abandon extremists – NYT,” by Tovah Lazaroff, Jerusalem Post, July 27, 2023:

US President Joe Biden is mulling a mutual security pact with Riyadh that would include an Israeli-Saudi normalization deal, New York Times’s Thomas Friedman wrote in a column published Thursday.

The deal would force Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to choose between his extremist government and regional peace, Friedman wrote.

Is it a given that the Saudis would require anything more of Israel other than “peace-for-peace,” or “normalization-for-normalization”? After all, even without normalization, the Saudis and Israelis have long been cooperating on security matters; if such ties could be strengthened, it will be of greater benefit to the Kingdom than to the Jewish state.

Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan the top White House official handling Middle East policy arrived in Saudi Arabia on Thursday “to explore the possibility of some kind of US-Saudi-Israeli-Palestinian understanding,” Friedman pointed out.

“Sullivan is not in Riyadh today for tourism,” he noted.

He based his column on the conversation he held with Biden last week in the White House.

The suggested security pact and subsequent normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Friedman explained, are subject to concessions made by Israel on preserving the possibility of a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

If the Saudis are able to obtain a security pact with the US which would protect the Kingdom from possible attacks by Iran or its proxies, this would by itself be quite an achievement. Though Saudi Arabia and Iran have recently engaged in a diplomatic rapprochement, it is not a given that this understanding will hold; in Yemen, for example, the Iran-backed Houthis have not stopped fighting the national government backed by the Saudis.

While Biden is still undecided over whether to pursue the pact, he had given the order to explore the possibility of a quadrilateral understanding between the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinians, NYT said.

The Palestinians need not be included in what is essentially a trilateral agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the US. The Americans are prepared to offer major concessions to win Saudi approval, including a security pact with Riyadh, committing the United States to come to the Saudis’ defense if the Kingdom is attacked. Furthermore, the Americans would commit to helping the Saudis develop a civilian nuclear program. And finally, the Saudis want to be able to buy more advanced weapons from the Americans than has hitherto been possible.

Such a deal would require a hefty price tag, Friedman wrote, as the Saudis want a NATO-level mutual security treaty by which the U.S. would come to Saudi Arabia’s defense if it is attacked, most likely by Iran.

Riyadh also wants a “civilian nuclear program, monitored by the U.S” and “the ability to purchase more advanced U.S. weapons,” he explained.

The US, in exchange, wants an end to the fighting in Yemen, curbs on Saudi-Chinese ties and significant Saudi financial assistance to the Palestinians, Friedman said, adding that Israel would have to make concessions that would preserve the possibility of a two-state resolution to the conflict, he wrote.

How can the Saudis commit to ending “fighting in Yemen” if Iran won’t cooperate, and the Houthis continue to fight? And how likely is it that the Crown Prince will now abandon his new BFF, Xi Jinping, and China, which MbS sees as a useful, hedging-bets alternative to the U.S. in a multipolar world?

Read  Report: Israeli government deeply frustrated with Biden over freezing of arms shipments

And wouldn’t those three major concessions made by the US to Saudi Arabia – a NATO-level security pact, assistance with a civilian nuclear program, and access to advanced American weapons – be enough to win Saudi agreement to normalize ties with Israel? Is it really MbS who insists on Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, when it is well known that MbS is tired of the Palestinians and urged Mahmoud Abbas several years ago to “take whatever deal the Americans offer”? Why would he now want to endanger such major concessions from the Americans by making the whole deal hinge on Israel being willing to give up its territorial claims, based on the Palestine Mandate, to Judea and Samaria? The Bidenites keep thinking that they can pressure Israel into halting all settlement and outpost building in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), but neither Netanyahu, nor any centrist Israeli politician, would ever agree. Nor would any Israeli leader ever agree not to annex any part of the West Bank, where more than 500,000 Israelis now live (and another 220,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem); at the very least, the five largest settlement blocs built just over the Green Line will almost certainly be annexed within the next few years. And for security reasons Jerusalem will also want to annex the Jordan Valley, that sits athwart the invasion route from the east. The Israelis will never return to the 1949 armistice lines, with that nine-mile wide waist from Qalqilya to the sea. The Bidenites had better go back and read the Mandate for Palestine, especially Article 6, so as to understand why Israel has both a right and a duty to settle Jews everywhere it can in the West Bank, whether on state or waste lands, or on lands abandoned by, or bought from, Palestinian owners.

Friedman was short on details with respect to the price Israel would have to pay for such a deal, but he suggested that it pledge to never annex portions of the West Bank.

Israel had already agreed in 2020 to suspend the application of sovereignty to West Bank settlements in exchange for the Abraham Accords under whose auspices the Jewish state agreed to normalize ties with four Arab states: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

Israel agreed in 2020, but only as a temporary measure, to delay – suspend – annexing parts of the West Bank in order to smooth negotiations with Arab states then willing to join the Abraham Accords. That suspension was never meant to be permanent, as Netanyahu has emphasized since.

Friedman also suggested that Israel should be asked not to build new West Bank settlements or to authorize outposts. In addition, he wrote, Israel should transfer portions of Area C, which is under IDF military and civilian control, to Areas A and B of the West Bank which is under the Palestinian Authority’s auspices.

Israel will not stop building settlements in the West Bank on land not owned by Palestinians – that is, on both “waste and state lands,” and lands sold by Palestinians to Jewish individuals and institutions. Nor is there any reason why Israel should be pressured to give up complete control of Area C, where all Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria are located. Friedman essentially is urging that Israel be squeezed back, bit by bit, within the 1949 armistice lines, all in order to persuade the Saudis to join the Abraham Accords. But such a territorial loss would be irreversible, whereas Saudi normalization of ties could be undone any time the Crown Prince felt like it. Besides, the benefits Israel would supposedly reap from a normalization of ties with Riyadh are unclear and, some Israeli analysts suggest, being exaggerated by Israelis eager to make business deals with the deep-pocketed Saudis, whatever the geopolitical cost in lost territory might be.

“If the Biden team made a deal without a significant Palestinian component, it would simultaneously strike a death blow to the Israeli democracy movement — by giving Netanyahu a huge geopolitical prize for free after he just did something so antidemocratic — and to the two-state solution, the cornerstone of U.S. Middle East diplomacy,” Friedman wrote.

Tom Friedman is no friend of Israel, which he routinely berates for not following his – Tom Friedman’s — advice. He is, after all, the World’s Greatest Authority. And he detests Netanyahu, for his refusal to kowtow to the Americans, or to recognize the brilliance of…Tom Friedman. Friedman thinks that the passage of Netanyahu’s judicial reform proposal is “antidemocratic,” though it was adopted by a vote of democratically-elected Knesset members. The only antidemocratic Israelis are those who have for 30 weeks of nonstop street protests tried to bludgeon the government into relenting on its judicial reform proposal. They have stopped at nothing, these undemocratic protesters, shutting down much of the country, persuading even doctors not to appear for work, and encouraging tens of thousands of IDF reservists, including fighter pilots and intelligence personnel, to refuse to show up for duty, thereby weakening the country’s defenses, all in order to override legislation that the majority of Israelis voted for.

In an interview with ABC published Thursday Netanyahu dismissed the idea that the Knesset passage of the first phase of his judicial reform plan, which the US opposes, would harm regional diplomatic efforts.

Israel and the US “are working on things that will change history, specifically, we are trying to block Iran’s aggression and advance peace with Saudi Arabia,” Netanyahu said.

“This will change the world. This will be a pivot of history,” he said, adding that “the relations with the US are as strong as ever.

Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords will not “change the world,” nor be a “pivot of history.” Netanyahu would be wise to curb his enthusiasm, which will be taken as a sign that he is prepared to surrender Israeli territorial rights in Judea and Samaria to obtain this supposedly earth-shaking agreement. For Israel, this “normalization of ties” will. simply bring out into the open, and expand on, ties between the Kingdom and the Jewish state that already exist. For Saudi Arabia, this deal will be a fantastic achievement, for Riyadh will have accomplished three things: first, the Saudis will now have an ironclad NATO-like commitment from the U.S. to come to the defense of the Kingdom if it is attacked; second, Saudi Arabia will also have a promise of American help in building a civilian nuclear program; third, the Saudi military will be able to buy advanced American weapons, possibly including F-35 planes, that until now have been denied it.

Read  Iran warns Saudi Arabia against normalizing relations with Israel

There is no need for the Palestinians to be part of this deal. Israel owes them nothing, and there is no reason to provide the PA with more territory to rule over, especially in Area C where all of the Jews in the West Bank live. The Saudis are not going to let a little thing like Palestinian unhappiness stop them from making a deal with the U.S. that gives them so much, a defense pact, help with a civilian nuclear program, and access to advanced weapons, while requiring of them so little, to openly recognize ties with Israel which already exist, and to expand them, which is hardly a concession. Those ties benefit the Kingdom even more than they do the Jewish state. It’s not the Saudis who are putting the Palestinians’ demands front and center; it’s the Bidenites. Israel must insist that while “normalization of ties” with the Saudis would be welcome, it’s not the end of the world if such an outcome falls through. The Jewish state will make no more concessions on land to the Palestinians beyond what it has already provided, by giving the PA control over Area A (total civilian and military control) and, to a lesser extent, over Area B (total civilian control).