Opinion | Israel and Saudi Arabia Are Trading Places

Opinion | Israel and Saudi Arabia Are Trading Places

The key question for the Biden administration and the Saudis today is this: What to do next? The good news is that they are 90 percent done with the mutual defense treaty that they have drawn up, both sides tell me. But they still need to tie down a few key points. These include the precise ways in which the U.S. will control the civilian nuclear energy program that Saudi Arabia will get under the deal; whether the mutual defense component will be explicit, like that between the U.S. and Japan, or less formal, like the understanding between the U.S. and Taiwan; and a long-term commitment for Saudi Arabia to continue to price oil in U.S. dollars, not switch to the Chinese currency.

But the other part of the deal, which is seen as critical to winning support in Congress, is for Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel. That will happen only if Israel agrees to Riyadh’s terms: get out of Gaza, freeze the building of settlements in the West Bank and embark on a three- to five-year “pathway” to establish a Palestinian state in the occupied territories. That state would also be conditioned on the Palestinian Authority undertaking reforms to make it a governing body that Palestinians trust and see as legitimate and Israelis see as effective.

There are a lot of “ifs” and “provided thats” in this equation that seem most unlikely today. They might seem less so when the Gaza war ends and both Israelis and Palestinians add up the terrible costs of not having a permanent peaceful solution and contemplate whether they want more of the same or to make a radical departure.

It is clear to U.S. and Saudi officials that with Netanyahu having thrown in with the far right to stay in power, he’s highly unlikely to agree to any kind of Palestinian statehood that would lead his partners to topple him — unless his political survival dictates otherwise. As a result, the U.S. and the Saudis are considering finalizing the deal and taking it to Congress with the stated proviso that Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Israel the minute Israel has a government ready to meet the Saudi-U.S. terms.

But no decision has been made. U.S. officials know that Israel is in such turmoil today, and with the whole world seemingly coming down on it, it is impossible to really get Israelis to consider the profound long-term political and economic benefits of normalized relations with Saudi Arabia, the world’s most influential Muslim nation and Arab nation.

Hopefully, though, if there can be a permanent end of fighting and a return of all Israelis taken hostage, Israel will hold new elections. And then — maybe, just maybe — the choice on the table for Israelis will not be Bibi or Bibi-lite, but Bibi or a credible pathway to peace with Saudi Arabia and the Palestinians.

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