Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

A Saudi-Israeli Peace Deal Isn't Worth It

| June 27, 2023

Why the United States will regret putting effort into its latest Middle East policy.

The New York Times reports that the Biden administration is making a "long-shot bid" to get Israel and Saudi Arabia to normalize relations. Among other things, this step requires overcoming Saudi concerns about Israel's continued maltreatment of its Palestinian subjects and getting Israel to accept Saudi Arabia's desire for an advanced civilian nuclear program. You'd think Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken have enough on their hands these days—the war in Ukraine is not going that well, reestablishing constructive relations with China is a challenging task, and they're apparently trying to reach some sort of informal bargain over Iran's nuclear program too—but nobody ever accused U.S. foreign policymakers of lacking hubris—oops, I mean, ambition.

At first glance, pushing Saudi Arabia and Israel to normalize relations seems like a no-brainer. U.S. leaders have long wanted Israel's neighbors to accept its existence and reach a permanent peace. That impulse (and the related goal of reducing Soviet influence in the region during the Cold War) helped inspire the Carter administration's shepherding of the 1978 Camp David Accords and subsequent Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, as well as the later U.S. effort to broker peace between Israel and Jordan in 1994. Unfortunately, subsequent efforts to achieve a "two-state solution" within the framework of the Oslo Accords were dismal failures, in good part because the United States was not an evenhanded mediator and acted as "Israel’s lawyer" instead. Even so, given the long history of Arab-Israeli enmity, it's easy to assume that normalization between Riyadh and Tel Aviv would strengthen peace and facilitate regional economic development. Why shouldn't Washington try to get two of its closest regional partners to come to terms with each other?

In fact, there are two big reasons why this sudden push makes little sense right now.

First, the danger of a serious conflict between Israel and any Arab states is already vanishingly small. The days where Israel had to worry about being surrounded by large, hostile, and more populous Arab coalition—with some members armed and trained by the Soviet Union—are long gone. Let's not forget that the supposedly outnumbered and vulnerable Israeli David won every one of the wars fought against the mostly mythical Arab Goliath. Today, Israel has the most powerful military in the region, and it is the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia isn't going to attack Israel under any circumstances, and neither are Jordan, Iraq, or Egypt. Syria is still technically a belligerent, but the battered Assad regime won't lift a finger against Israel either. Indeed, most of these states have been collaborating with Israel against mutual foes—including Hamas in Gaza and of course Iran—for a long time.

Don’t get me wrong: Full normalization would be nice—especially for Israel—and arranging it would probably win the Biden administration some plaudits from groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee . But normalization wouldn't be a sea change in regional politics; it would merely codify and make a situation that already exists more visible. The open secret is that Saudi Arabia (and some other Gulf states) tacitly accepted Israel a long time ago, even if they haven't been willing to admit it in public. The bottom line is that even if Biden's long-shot bid were to pay off, the strategic benefits for the United States will be minor....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“A Saudi-Israeli Peace Deal Isn't Worth It.” Foreign Policy, June 27, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt