Why bilateralism is key to any Saudi-Israeli agreement

Tony Badran
Tony Badran
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Ahead of his victory in Israel’s election in November, Benjamin Netanyahu had been telegraphing loudly that his top priority is to pursue a peace accord with Saudi Arabia. As he put the finishing touches on his coalition to return as prime minister, he was given the opportunity to make his case in a historic interview with the Saudi Al Arabiya English language website, which was covered extensively by Arabic-language media, Reuters, AP, and the global press. At the heart of the conversation was Netanyahu’s view of the future of Israeli-Saudi relations, which he depicted as a “quantum” game-changer for the entire region and the key to unlocking Israel’s impasse with the Palestinians.

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Netanyahu firmly presented the possibility of peace with Saudi Arabia, which he has described as “the big prize,” as a bilateral Saudi-Israel discussion. The Israeli Prime Minister-elect seemed at pains to emphasize that Israel has acted and would continue to act independently of the United States, especially when foundational issues of the country’s security—such as the threat posed by Iran to Israel and to the region—are at stake.

With the exception of the Abraham Accords, which were promoted by Donald Trump, Netanyahu’s position was true to the prior history of prior successful Israeli peacemaking efforts. Israel’s 1977 agreement with Egypt was, if anything, a bilateral maneuver to bypass a larger US framework promoted by Jimmy Carter that sought to emphasize the centrality of an Israeli deal with the Palestinians. Similarly, the Jordanians wanted nothing to do with America’s “comprehensive” peace framework, which would have put them at the mercy of the maximalism of radical regimes like Syria, and sought a bilateral track with Israel instead.

By contrast, successive US administrations from both parties have for decades not only focused obsessively on elevating the Palestinians, but also pursued frameworks and tracks that empowered radical actors in the Iranian axis, like the Assad regime, and turned them into regional centers of gravity under the apparent theory that the spoilers should get the spoils. Barack Obama took that approach and multiplied it tenfold with his Iran Realignment doctrine, which elevated Iran while downgrading US ties to Israel and Saudi Arabia, depicting them as undesirable irritants, if not outright hostiles.

The shared dilemma that has brought Israel and Saudi Arabia unexpectedly closer over the past decade has been how to handle their relationship with an erratic Washington bent on elevating their mutual foes. This problem is one of the interesting aspects of the interview. In fact, Netanyahu decided to lead with it:

“There is a need for a reaffirmation of America’s commitment to its traditional allies in the Middle East. Israel, of course, is there and we’ve had a solid, unbreakable relationship. But I think that the alliance, the traditional alliance with Saudi Arabia and other countries, has to be reaffirmed. There should not be periodic swings, or even wild swings in this relationship, because I think that the alliance between America’s allies and with America is the anchor of stability in our region.”

Leaving aside Netanyahu’s pretense of offering mediation on behalf of Saudi Arabia with “my friend of 40 years, President Biden,” the Israeli Prime Minister-elect’s statement reflects recognition of the serious shift that has taken place in Washington with the cementing of Barack Obama’s status as the maximum leader of the Democratic party. And although Netanyahu presented the problem in terms of the US-Saudi relationship, in truth, behind his affirmation of its enduring solidity, he was describing Israel’s own tensions with Team Obama-Biden.

In recognition of this enduring divergence, Netanyahu gave a forthright positive answer on whether he’d be prepared to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure irrespective of Washington’s preference. The expressed willingness to act independently and not be resigned to what American folly might attempt to dictate is critical to Saudi-Israel relations, and in fact might be seen as their overriding raison d’être.

One of the obstacles on the road to a formal agreement between the two natural strategic allies is a workable framework. The upside of the Abraham Accords, and what distinguished them from all previous American-sponsored frameworks, is that they were about formally organizing US allies together in one camp and drawing a clear line between these friends of America on one side, and the common adversary, Iran, on the other. Netanyahu articulated this central rationale in the interview, and described the Abraham Accords as agreements “with like-minded states, traditional allies of the United States, and now, I think sharing common interests to block Iranian aggression.”

But aside from the fact that the Biden team, inasmuch as it is pursuing Obama’s diametrically opposite framework of Realignment, has expressed contempt or downright pathological aversion to the Abraham Accords, an Israeli accord with Saudi Arabia has to be a standalone, bilateral agreement. Netanyahu pointedly acknowledged this need, and spoke of “a new peace initiative” with the Kingdom, which he clearly set apart from the Abraham Accords, and appropriately so.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in Tel Aviv, Feb. 23, 2020, and US President Joe Biden in Washington, DC, on May 7, 2021. (AFP)
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in Tel Aviv, Feb. 23, 2020, and US President Joe Biden in Washington, DC, on May 7, 2021. (AFP)

The importance of a bilateral framework, especially when bucking the destructive preferences, or follies, of an American administration, cannot be overstated. Removing the outside noise that could only sabotage bilateral interests is paramount.

Moreover, the Kingdom’s unique position demands it.

Then there’s the fact that the Saudis had proposed their own initiative for a peace deal two decades ago—the Arab Peace Initiative (API). Unsurprisingly, from a Saudi-backed outlet, a large number of questions revolved around how to tackle the Saudi initiative, with Al Arabiya reporters pressing Netanyahu to say that he would accept the API as a “blueprint” which could be modified as needed as the two countries hash out the details.

Yet the framing of the questions, combining the acceptance of the Saudi initiative as a blueprint with “taking concrete steps” toward “resolving the Palestinian issue” exposed some of the problems that made it unlikely for Netanyahu to give a straight “yes” answer— even as the Israeli prime minister heaped praise on the Saudi initiative and went far in outlining what the Palestinians stand to gain.

By emphasizing “the Palestinian issue,” the framing removes the initiative from a bilateral framework, saddling it with the intractable Palestinian baggage and the maximalism of members of the Iran axis, like the Assad regime. Likewise, framing the agreement as a general settlement of the issues of all Arab elements or states with Israel instead of a bilateral initiative between Israel and the Saudis makes any agreement hostage to revanchist elements that are hostile to both Israeli and Saudi interests. These are some of the issues that Israel and Saudi Arabia will need to work out moving forward, so as to center the bilateralism that is critical to the success of any agreement between the two states while also giving the API the due that the Saudis seem to feel is necessary for the legitimacy of any future agreement.

Netanyahu showed a recognition of these issues when pressed again, this time without mention of the Palestinians, on whether he’d accept the API as a blueprint or as a “starting point” (which gives both sides more room to maneuver): “I think 20 years later, you know, we need to have a fresh view. And I’m not going to say what it is. I think we need to talk about it. Maybe talk discreetly.”

Netanyahu was clearly not about to trap himself with a major announcement before getting a much clearer and more definite indication from the Saudis of their willingness to amend the obsolete, non-bilateral and problematic aspects of the API. The removal of any mention of the Golan Heights from the API is one obvious amendment: The notion that Saudi Arabia should hinge its own national interest on Israel conceding strategic territory to Bashar al-Assad and Iran is clearly absurd.

That such terms, related to the so-called 1967 lines, are designed to sabotage bilateral agreements between Israel and the Arab Gulf states can be seen in how Barack Obama, in his final hours in office in 2016, rushed to adopt them in UN Security Council resolution 2334. With that maneuver, Obama pulled a page from the playbook of the radical Middle Eastern regimes. Obama saw that resolution as an instrument to fortify his Iran Realignment doctrine, to keep America’s now-downgraded traditional allies apart, while continuing to wield the Palestinians as a club against Israel.

It is in this context that one should read the famous John Kerry version of the 1967 Khartoum summit rejectionist “No’s.” It wasn’t analysis. It was a warning to Israel and the Arab Gulf states that laid out Obama’s policy and preferences, which is why Team Obama-Biden is reluctant to even utter the name of the Abraham Accords. Hence the need for the Saudi-Israeli dialogue to be strictly bilateral both in form and substance.

In a recent, self-parodic article written in Team Obama-Biden’s classic Netanyahu-hating genre, an unnamed administration official asserted that the Israeli leader would not be able to achieve any breakthrough with Saudi Arabia without the administration’s backing. This was merely the administration looking to insert itself in the middle in order to control the process and keep both countries in line with its regional priorities. Perhaps, that’s another reason why the Saudis are so eager to have Netanyahu — the man they clearly are looking to deal with — give their initiative some sort of a public nod, which would obviate the need for a third actor. But it’s also one reason why it’s important they understand the pitfalls of a rigid API and how it could enable Team Obama-Biden to push its Realignment agenda, and the tactical use of the Palestinians to that end, under the cover of championing the API.

Israeli PM Bibi Netanyahu and  Ahmad Tibi (Stock image)
Israeli PM Bibi Netanyahu and Ahmad Tibi (Stock image)

When it came to the administration’s pro-Iran framework for the region, there was a section of the Al Arabiya interview where Netanyahu didn’t convey a full appreciation of what Team Obama-Biden has been doing, including with Israel. In a salvo of sharp back-to-back questions, Netanyahu was pressed on whether he saw the difference between “US-sponsored agreements with countries that are backed by Iran on one hand, and the agreements between Israel and Gulf states,” and whether these agreements “support two very different potential regional security architectures: one centered around the US relationship with Iran, and the second centered around Israel's relationships in the Gulf?”

The Al Arabiya interviewing team was referring to the maritime border demarcation deal that the Biden administration rammed through before the Israeli elections, in which the Yair Lapid government conceded all of Hezbollah’s demands. The deal positioned the US as a guarantor between Israel and the Hezbollah-run pseudo state.

Netanyahu’s answer left something to be desired. To be sure, he did draw a clear distinction between the two types of agreements and their fundamentally different natures. That is to say, true to his understanding of the Abraham Accords’ essential function, there’s no doubt about Netanyahu’s sense of the regional fault lines and of the concept of friends and enemies. But his answer did not provide insight into his view of how the administration conceptualized the maritime agreement and how it was embroiling Israel in stabilizing Hezbollah-land — something, by contrast, that the Saudi questioner very clearly did understand.

For instance, while Netanyahu drew an analogy between the maritime deal and tactical, ceasefire agreements that “hold as long as the common interest to hold them keeps on,” he didn’t take even that analogy to its logical conclusion. That is, Team Biden was very clear that what it was doing in Lebanon was establishing security for “both countries” —which is to say, Israel and Hezbollah. Administration amplifiers and cutouts spoke openly of the deal setting in place a balance of mutual deterrence. This, the administration said, was a manifestation of its “regional integration” framework — that is, “integrating” Iranian equities by entangling US allies in propping them up.

While Saudi Arabia has refused to sign on to the American framework and fund its enemies, despite tremendous pressure from the administration to underwrite Lebanon, the Lapid government folded like a lawn chair. It’s obvious from Netanyahu’s tiptoeing around the issue that he’s basically stuck with the deal — a deal which will stabilize, entrench, and enrich Hezbollah on Israel’s border.

But Netanyahu also went to great lengths in the interview to describe Israel’s persistent campaign over the past decade targeting Iranian and Hezbollah infrastructure in Syria to prevent the latter from becoming another missile base on Israel’s border. The strikes are now a near-weekly occurrence — itself a testament to Iran’s own determination. But the price for these strikes has been to leave Hezbollah’s infrastructure in Lebanon unmolested. Netanyahu rightly described that build-up — not any border dispute —as the cause of instability. But with the maritime deal, the Biden administration, explicitly, was trying to lock in place an arrangement to keep Lebanon stabilized and unmolested as a Hezbollah missile base. That is to say, with the foreign investments that come with the deal, as well as with the insertion of the US in the middle as a guarantor, the administration was putting multiple checks in place on Israeli action in Lebanon moving forward.

Perhaps inherent in Netanyahu’s answer is the acknowledgement that, if and when at some point a war with Hezbollah becomes necessary, then this deal will not stand in the way. Maybe also, as with his answer about his willingness to take action against Iran’s nuclear program, he will disregard Washington’s preferences in Lebanon when Israel’s security is even more directly threatened. But we’re not clear on whether or not he recognizes that extending a protective umbrella to Hezbollah-run Lebanon is the active US intent here.

This historic interview gave us a front-seat look at an initial public discussion of some of the issues that the two US allies will need to tackle moving forward as they look to come together to grapple with the disaster that Team Obama-Biden has foisted on them and the region.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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