October 6, 2023

IntelBrief: Is a Saudi-Israel Normalization Deal Inevitable?

AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed

Bottom Line Up Front

  • To cement Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic recognition of Israel, the United States is reportedly prepared to offer the kingdom a security guarantee similar to those it has signed with Japan and South Korea.
  • While these Indo-Pacific alliances are among the strongest U.S. security commitments outside of NATO, experts say the United States retains flexibility in how and under what conditions it must defend its allies in Asia.
  • Reports of U.S. offers to help develop a civilian Saudi nuclear energy program have prompted concerns that this could one day allow Saudi Arabia to obtain nuclear weapons, which could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
  • Despite Riyadh’s repeated public assurances, the deal may come without any significant progress for the Palestinian cause, which Saudi Arabia has historically championed (at least rhetorically).

In an effort to convince Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, the United States is reportedly prepared to grant the kingdom major security guarantees enjoyed by only a select few U.S. allies outside of NATO. In September, media reports suggested that such a guarantee could be modeled after U.S. defense treaties with South Korea and Japan. The deal could also include U.S. support for a civilian Saudi nuclear energy program. Saudi-Israel normalization would also mark a major step forward for U.S. efforts to integrate Israel into the Middle East, a process jumpstarted under the Trump administration, although it leaves questions about the prospect of Palestinian nationhood or preservation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank.

To better understand what a future U.S. security guarantee for Saudi Arabia might entail, it is worth examining the key tenets of the existing treaties upon which such a deal may be based. Perhaps the most significant mandate of the American agreement with Japan calls for both countries to “act to meet the common danger” of an “armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan.” While this language could be interpreted to mean the United States must go to war with any nation deemed to be a military aggressor against Japan, some experts say the language is sufficiently vague to give the United States flexibility in its response to an attack, as well as for the criteria that would spur such a response.

What constitutes an “armed attack” is not necessarily straightforward, especially given the increasing frequency of so-called “grey zone warfare”– such as disinformation campaigns, cyber-attacks, and the use of private military companies or mercenaries – which may be considered below the threshold of full-fledged or total war. As far as the Japanese treaty is concerned, for example, U.S. and Japanese ministers have agreed “that a cyber-attack could, in certain circumstances, constitute an armed attack,” although this concept is hotly debated by scholars and international lawyers. This will be important to consider in the Saudi context, as the Saudi state oil company, Aramco, has been hit by major cyber-attacks in the past. Also noteworthy is that the Houthi movement in Yemen – which many consider an Iranian proxy force – has struck inside Saudi territory with drones and missiles. Whether state sponsors can be deemed directly responsible for the actions of their proxies and what sort of response that would require will be another important consideration for any future security guarantee.

Developing Saudi Arabia’s nuclear capacity will also further complicate regional stability in the Middle East. While reports indicate that U.S. officials have floated the idea of establishing a U.S.-administered uranium enrichment facility on Saudi territory for the purposes of developing civilian nuclear power – a plan that does not seem to have U.S. President Joseph Biden’s approval yet – skeptics fear this could enable Saudi Arabia to develop its own nuclear weapons in the future. Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions are no secret, especially since its longtime adversary Iran has been openly enriching uranium for years, while Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons is well-known, though publicly denied. During a rare interview with Fox News late last month, de-facto Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) said that if Iran developed its own nuclear weapon, “we have to get one.” The comment raised concerns throughout the U.S. government, including among many in Congress. Not only would such a development add yet another unpredictable variable to the immense challenge of managing global nuclear proliferation, but a Saudi nuclear capability could also provide Riyadh with the sort of unassailable military dominance that has made it hard for Russia’s neighbors, for example, to resist its geopolitical demands or military aggression. While some may see Saudi nuclear development as an acceptable way to deter a nuclear-armed Iran, other Middle Eastern countries might understandably see Saudi’s newfound power as a grave threat and seek out their own nuclear deterrents or security guarantees, whether from the United States or elsewhere. Ironically, this would undermine the U.S. case that has attempted to cast Saudi-Israeli normalization as an important catalyst for regional stability.

Depending on the final details, a normalization deal could also represent a death knell for Palestinian statehood or the preservation of West Bank territories against Israeli annexation. Nine days after MBS insisted that the Palestinian issue remained a “very important” negotiating point for Riyadh, Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia was willing to make a deal that did not substantially support the Palestinian cause. While the White House has called for Israel to compromise with the Palestinians, given how popular West Bank annexation is among Israel’s current ruling coalition and cabinet-level officials, it seems unlikely the Israelis would grant significant political or territorial concessions to the Palestinians in reality, even if they agreed to do so on paper. Reports suggest that Benny Gantz, the leader of Israel’s opposition National Unity party (and former Minister of Defense), met this week with U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, a possible indication that all sides are inching closer to an agreement.

Yet even if U.S. officials manage to cobble together a deal that both Israel and Saudi Arabia can agree on, it is far from certain that the Biden administration can get the U.S. Congress to sign off on a defense treaty with Saudi Arabia. Even if the Biden administration can corral its congressional Democratic allies, the party only holds a narrow majority in the Senate, and several important figures in the party have shown overt revulsion toward working with MBS. In an era where Americans are especially uneasy about foreign military interventions, particularly in the Middle East, U.S. lawmakers will struggle to make a case for putting American lives, tax dollars, and military hardware on the line for Saudi Arabia, when it remains unclear how Washington stands to gain from this deal.

Further, MBS has made enemies on both sides of the aisle in Washington D.C., whether for his atrocious human rights record or his divergence from American economic interests. Many Democrats view MBS as an authoritarian despot in light of a U.S. intelligence assessment that he ordered the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as for his key role in bringing humanitarian catastrophe to Yemen via war with the Houthis. For members of Congress who care less about these human rights issues, there are still grievances concerning Saudi Arabia’s inflation of global energy prices at the expense of American consumers. While little can be said to deflect MBS’ human rights problem, a sufficiently strong security guarantee may convince Saudi Arabia to align its oil production strategy with U.S. interests. Additionally, with the importance of countering a rising China among the last remaining sources of bipartisanship in Washington, American lawmakers may be willing to override their concerns about the Kingdom’s leadership if it means pulling Saudi Arabia out of China’s orbit. If Congress cannot be convinced, however, the United States could still pursue a watered-down defense agreement similar to the one it signed with Bahrain in September. While the Bahrain deal did not require congressional approval, it also offered less assurance in terms of hard U.S. military support against foreign aggression. Ultimately, a deal may get done, and it could be more flash than substance, with unpredictable consequences for stability in the region.