Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, essentially frozen out by President Biden, is back in laudatory mode. In a long withheld sit-down with the President yesterday Netanyahu told Biden, “Under your leadership, Mr. President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia.” Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s longtime chief agit-prop guy and hype man, says it could be a “reverse 9/11” for the U.S. That sounds kind of weird frankly and not necessarily something you’d want, given that 9/11 and everything that happened after it kinda sucked. But what he means is that whereas 9/11 led to one disaster after another for the U.S. in the region, this Israel-Saudi peace deal would make everything in the region suddenly awesome for the U.S.
But who are we kidding here exactly?
The price for the Saudis appears to be some sort of pretty ironclad security guarantee on the model we have with South Korea.
As I said, who are we kidding here?
What does the U.S. get from giving a strong security guarantee to a country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that is now largely hostile to the U.S. on behalf of another country, Israel, that is increasingly annoying and meddlesome at best? This isn’t the 1990s or even the aughts when the Middle East was a region made up mostly of various sorts of fairly-locked-in U.S. allies, albeit ones with major disagreements amongst themselves. In that world it was a matter of great value to have Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan sign peace treaties with each other. They may not be allies themselves. But if they had normal state to state relations that made our being allies with each of them individually far more manageable. If that rapprochement could be extended to the Gulf, and especially to Saudi Arabia, even better.
But that’s hardly the case today.
The U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia, stretching all the way back to the 1940s, was always uncomfortable and even unseemly. But for decades the Saudis were supporters of high level American interests and guarantors of price stability in global oil markets. At least that was the idea. Today they appear more in league with Russia than the United States, certainly in world oil markets and beyond that as well. They openly bid China against the United States for their favor.
We live in a different world today. The Saudis have as much right to pursue their own interests as any other sovereign country. But again, what would the U.S. be getting in return for any of this?
The only clear answer I can see is: nothing.
I’m not even talking here about the Saudi Kingdom’s abysmal human rights record. That speaks for itself. Sometimes the U.S. must balance values with core interests. With the Saudis the values side of the ledger speaks for itself. What are the hard foreign policy or economic interests here balancing any of that out?
There’s the additional matter that both countries have become increasingly open about the fact that their connection is with the Republican Party and/or the Trump family rather than the U.S. Even now it seems clear that the Saudis will do what they can to time a spike in global oil prices to coincide with President Biden’s reelection campaign.
With Israel it is not so much Israel per se as Netanyahu and his nationalist bloc. The other Israel has been on the streets weekly for the better part of a year protesting his judicial coup and the steady movement of the state under his aegis to Team Authoritarian. At the moment a majority of Israel is likely on the side of the protestors. But Netanyahu’s return to the premiership makes believing that Israel’s future isn’t his a matter of hope more than reason.
There are of course a thousand complexities in these relationships, matters that go beyond surface snubs and the personalities of individual leaders. But again, what exactly is in this for the U.S.? Will this peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia pry the latter free of Russia and China? If that were the case, that might conceivably hold some logic. But is there any sign of that?
Unless there is some part of this, some unstated commitment strangely kept out of view, this seems more flimflam to get something out of the U.S. for nothing. It all seems very Trumpian.
My fear here is that we went so long in U.S. foreign policy seeing something like this as crown jewel type breakthrough that we’re on a kind of autopilot. We haven’t stood back long enough or far enough to consider whether this is really a good deal for us now as opposed to 10, 20 or 30 years ago. On its face it looks like we agree to a committed relationship while the Saudis play the field. The Bibi-fied Israelis might not be far behind.
I would imagine that foreign policy types think that the U.S. being the guarantor of a regional anchor relationship puts us back in the game, a status put in question by the recent Chinese brokering of a rapprochement between the Saudis and Iran and Russia’s virtual protectorate over Syria. But is that really what we’re getting? I have my doubts. They would likely also see it as a further counterweight to Iran. But again, is that really what we’re getting? Again, I have my doubts.