Biden and Bibi both need a big win. Is a deal with the Saudis their answer?
OpinionGuest Columnist

Biden and Bibi both need a big win. Is a deal with the Saudis their answer?

Can Netanyahu pull off a deal with Riyadh? His legacy might depend on it

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with President Joe Biden from his office in Jerusalem, Nov. 7, 2022. (Office of Benjamin Netanyahu.)
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with President Joe Biden from his office in Jerusalem, Nov. 7, 2022. (Office of Benjamin Netanyahu.)

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

Often the hardest task in diplomacy is seeing through the fog. And the current brume is especially thick.

The press is rife with reports of an impending treaty, brokered by Washington, between Riyadh and Jerusalem, of arms transfers, security pacts, and nuclear programs on the one hand and, on the other, of peaceful gestures toward the Palestinians.

Israeli streets, meanwhile, continue to roil with anti-government protests and coalition ministers daily engage in outrages against the country’s Arab citizens and senior security officers while supporting radical rightwing vigilantes.

What to make of all this? Can a coherent picture emerge? The answer, perhaps, is yes, but only by connecting the puzzle pieces.

Trouble at home for Biden

President Joe Biden is facing a steep uphill battle for reelection in 2024 and burdened with a low approval rating. He has no foreign policy achievements and little to show for his massive financial investment in the battlefields of Ukraine.

Having witnessed the Saudis spin out of America’s sphere of influence and into China’s, the White House desperately needs a win. How else to explain how, after refusing to utter the term “Abraham Accords” throughout most of his term, the president now sees expanding those agreements as a vital American interest? Why else would Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan rush to Riyadh and court a crown prince formerly deemed a pariah?

The Saudis’ impossible ask

The next piece of the puzzle is the Saudis themselves. They want the generous arms packages authorized by President Trump but frozen by his successor, and American security guarantees against Iran. They are also purportedly seeking U.S. approval for a civil nuclear program which the oil-soaked kingdom cannot reasonably need. In return for all of this — again, purportedly — the Saudis are willing to “normalize” relations with Israel. But, they insist, something else is needed. Israel must make a meaningful gesture toward the Palestinians.

Such a concession, however, is hardly conceivable under Israel’s current coalition. The same ministers who this week tried to stop the transfer of millions of government-approved shekels to Arab municipalities and East Jerusalem students, who labeled as heroes the settlers suspected of killing a Palestinian villager, and who denounced Israeli security chiefs as traitors, are unlikely to sanction a construction freeze in Judea and Samaria or permit Palestinian building in formerly off-limits areas.

Bibi needs a big win

The final piece in the puzzle is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He, maybe even more than Biden, needs this treaty. By offering game-changing benefits — access to the vast Saudi market, relations with Indonesia, Pakistan and Kuwait — the agreement may persuade prosecutors to drop the corruption charges against him. That could rescue his legacy from the depths to which the government’s ill-conceived judicial overhaul program has cast it and restore a semblance of unity to the Israeli public. With the ink on an Israel-Saudi treaty scarcely dry, Netanyahu could take a preeminent place in Israeli history.

First, though, he must secure that concession. That necessity may explain his decision to press forward with a law prohibiting the Supreme Court to void ministerial appointments on the basis of “unreasonableness.”

Why, of the hundred pieces of legislation in the judicial overhaul platform, prioritize this one? Because it would overturn the Supreme Court’s finding of “extremely unreasonable” Netanyahu’s attempt to include Shas-party head Aryeh Deri in the government.

That ruling resulted from Deri’s multiple criminal convictions but overlooked his diplomatic profile as a moderate who once supported the two-state solution. With the court out of his way and Deri in his coalition, Netanyahu just might be able to counterbalance the radicals and perhaps convince moderate leaders, chief among them Benny Gantz, to replace them. The Saudis will get their concessions.

That, at least, is the message emanating from Jerusalem this week. Netanyahu will make that gesture, no matter what. Foreign Minister Eli Cohen further suggested, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, that an American commitment to Saudi defense would eliminate the kingdom’s need for a nuclear program that Israel has always opposed.

One by one, it seems, the puzzle pieces are falling into place. The fog is dissipating, and a picture of peace becomes clear.

Or does it?

No sooner did reports of an imminent breakthrough appear in the American press than the State Department hurried to qualify them, indicating that a treaty may be an entire year away. That is a very long time in Israeli politics. Many analysts predict that the current coalition is unlikely to last the winter.

As for the concession to the Palestinians, Netanyahu will not only have to overcome resistance within his coalition but also inside his own party, much of which has gravitated to the extreme right. Biden, too, will have his nay-sayers — Senators Chris Van Hollen and Tim Kaine asserted that it will be extremely difficult for Congress to ratify a treaty that fails to substantively address the Palestinian problem.

Other commentators have wondered why the Saudis, post Afghanistan, would trust the current U.S. administration, and why Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, after cold-shouldering Biden before, would want to assist him now? What would the custodians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina really gain from formal recognition of the Jewish state?

Finally, there are the demonstrators. Having fervidly implored Biden to save Israel from Bibi, they will not sit silently while Biden saves Netanyahu from them. Israel survived 75 years without peace with the Saudis, they say, but may not survive another year with this government.

Fog is a perennial problem in diplomacy and seeing through it a constant challenge. A peace treaty between Israel and Saudi Arabia may yet be glimpsed. But right now, only intermittently and through persistently dense clouds.

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