It’s a Bad Idea for Biden to Broker Saudi-Israeli Normalization

Reprinted with permission from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

The Biden administration is reportedly planning to pursue a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia before the end of this year.

According to Axios, President Biden will seek to work out the deal before the election campaign “consumes” his agenda. While the prospect of a normalization deal between these countries is not as far-fetched as it once was, it remains a long-shot and there is no compelling reason for the U.S. to make this the focus of its diplomatic efforts in the region.

The president might think that a deal like this would be a feather in his cap as he seeks re-election, but it would be a serious error to make the additional commitments to Saudi Arabia that would be needed to make it possible.

Biden already made the mistake of trying to curry favor with Mohammed bin Salman last year, only to be rebuffed ahead of the midterm elections last year. He would be unwise to make a big pre-election push for a deal with the Saudis that would come at America’s expense when there is good reason to expect that the crown prince would leave him in the lurch once again. Mohammed bin Salman would probably prefer to wait until after the election so that he can extract even bigger concessions later. Even if the Saudis were willing to accept Biden’s offer this year, it would be a bad deal for the United States.

Assuming that a deal followed the pattern set by earlier normalization agreements with Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, it would likely involve no meaningful concessions on the part of Israel and would depend on additional US political and military favors for the Saudis. The Saudi price for normalization has been rumored to include a US security guarantee and support for the kingdom’s civilian nuclear program, and at the very least it would likely involve significant increases in US arms sales and military assistance. This would bind the US and Saudi Arabia together even more closely and further enabling its destructive behavior in the region. That’s a price that the US should refuse to pay.

The US should never extend a security guarantee to Saudi Arabia, and it ought to be downgrading and ideally ending its military support for the kingdom instead. The last thing that the US needs is another security commitment in a region where it has already wasted thousands of lives and trillions of dollars in unnecessary wars. A security guarantee to the Saudis would almost certainly encourage their government to engage in more reckless and provocative behavior. When US clients assume that they have Washington’s protection, they run risks that they would not take on their own. Events of the last decade prove that backing the Saudis to the hilt has made Saudi Arabia more aggressive and threatening to its neighbors.  

We also know how the Saudis use the weapons that the US sells them. The Saudi military has used U.S.-made weapons to kill thousands of civilians and to commit countless war crimes in Yemen. The US should not be providing them with the means to wage war on their neighbors. Even if the current truce in Yemen holds and possibly one day leads to a settlement of the conflict, the US should never again put itself in the position of enabling a war like that. An even closer security relationship with Saudi Arabia takes the US very far in the wrong direction.

Normalization between Israel and Arab states was supposed to be the reward for Israeli compromise with the Palestinians, but the normalization agreements supported by the Trump administration were designed to ignore the Palestinians and give the Israeli government a free pass to do whatever it liked in the occupied territories. Contrary to the previous administration’s spin, those agreements had nothing to do with peace and everything to do with giving a US stamp of approval to Israeli apartheid.

A deal with the Saudis would be another kick in the teeth to the Palestinian people, and it would further entrench the oppressive system that they are forced to endure. In addition to being a bad bargain for the United States, it would be a morally reprehensible thing to do.

Making a push for a Saudi normalization deal now is also politically tone-deaf. The picture of Biden cozying up to both Mohammed bin Salman and a far-right Israeli coalition government under Benjamin Netanyahu is the last thing most people in his party want to see. There is a significant bloc of Democrats that wants to cut off existing US support for Saudi Arabia, so it is difficult to imagine that they are going to roll over and accept a large increase in US support as part of a normalization agreement.

There is also much broader and more vocal support for Palestine in the Democratic Party than there used to be. According to a Gallup poll earlier this year, 49 percent of Democrats say they sympathize more with the Palestinians. Biden is completely out of step with a large section of his party on this issue. Making a big show of selling out the Palestinians again for the benefit of a government riddled with extremists would likely invite a backlash.

Progressives are already dissatisfied with Biden’s foreign policy on many issues, and something like this would be a gratuitous slap in the face of millions of Democratic voters and activists that Biden can scarcely afford to alienate on the cusp of an election. Some progressives might reasonably start asking why they should vote for Biden when they are already getting Trump’s foreign policy anyway.

There is no important regional problem that would be solved or even improved by a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The repression of the Palestinian people would continue and probably worsen, and the US would be even more deeply implicated in enabling that repression than it already is. There would be no peace to celebrate because Israel and Saudi Arabia have not been at war in half a century. The US would bear the costs of making the deal happen, but it would stand to gain nothing while being saddled with even larger liabilities for the future.

It is easy to see why the Israeli government would like to have the US broker more normalization deals on their behalf, but no US interests are served by any of this. The US shouldn’t be in the business of trying to bribe one client for the benefit of another. If the Israeli government wants normal relations with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region, it should be the one to give the Saudis something that they want. If their government can’t or won’t do that, that is not Washington’s problem to solve.

Daniel Larison is a columnist for Responsible Statecraft. He is contributing editor at and former senior editor at The American Conservative magazine. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLarison and at his blog, Eunomia, here.