The Joe Biden administration is redoubling its efforts in pursuit of a normalization deal between Tel Aviv and Riyadh, says New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Significantly curtailing China’s influence in the Middle East is one of the White House’s main priorities.
According to Friedman, based on his discussion with Biden last week, the White House is taking another stab at a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia and Israel, even if it means potentially offering Riyadh “NATO-level” security guarantees and other major commitments. For decades, Biden has been known as “Israel’s man in Washington.” Although, the Palestinians stand to gain little from rapprochement between the Gulf kingdom and the Jewish state.
“The president is wrestling with whether to pursue the possibility of a US-Saudi mutual security pact that would involve Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel, provided that Israel make concessions to the Palestinians that would preserve the possibility of a two-state solution,” writes Friedman.
Israel is an apartheid state which, for nearly 60 years, has imposed a brutal military occupation over millions of Palestinian Muslims and Christians. Palestinians are systematically deprived of their land, rights, property, and – quite often – their lives. Israeli forces and settlers have killed more than 200 Palestinians this year.
Friedman said the administration expects the Saudis will demand that Tel Aviv “preserve the prospect of a two-state solution.” This is unlikely, as even the Times writer himself reluctantly acknowledges, particularly given that Netanyahu’s cabinet and coalition are made up of extremist settlers, Jewish supremacists, and ultra-nationalists determined to annex the West Bank by force. The current government is setting records for settlement expansion, building additional Jewish-only colonies in the occupied territories which only serve to further eviscerate even the pretense of a future Palestinian state.
In May, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) told the Arab League that “the Palestinian issue was and remains the central issue for Arab countries, and it is at the top of the kingdom’s priorities.” The deal hyped by Friedman may simply be out of reach, as the kingdom has already refused to normalize with the Israelis unless there is a two-state solution.
Nonetheless, normalization was reportedly discussed this week between Biden, national security advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Brett McGurk, the White House’s top Middle East official on the National Security Council. Following these meetings, Biden “dispatched Sullivan and McGurk to Saudi Arabia, where they arrived Thursday morning,” according to Friedman. The officials are there to explore possibilities regarding “some kind of US-Saudi-Israeli-Palestinian understanding.”
Sullivan and McGurk are said to be probing MBS for what he seeks in exchange for a deal with Israel. Per the Times, the Saudis hope for a “NATO-level mutual security treaty” from the US, assistance building a civilian nuclear energy program and increased access to advanced weapon systems, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense platform.
Fredman says Saudi Arabia wants additional weapons and a security guarantee to counter threats from Iran, but there is reason to believe Riyadh is now less concerned about a confrontation with Tehran than it was previously.
In a groundbreaking diplomatic coup, Beijing brokered a normalization deal between the Islamic Republic and the Saudi kingdom earlier this year. The long-time arch rivals have resumed full diplomatic relations and plan to expand cooperation – particularly with respect to trade and investment – while both sides have expressed interest in creating a naval alliance. In another move that “blindsided” the US, Saudi Arabia has also restored relations with Iran’s key ally Damascus.
Biden would like the Saudis to end the fighting in Yemen, says Friedman. However, for well over a year, there have been no Saudi airstrikes on its neighbor, nor retaliatory cross-border attacks by the Houthis. Riyadh and the Houthis are now eager to make a final deal to lift the Saudi blockade, which has suffocated Yemen for years, and formally end a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Even as the Saudi-led coalition employed plainly genocidal tactics throughout its years-long war on Yemen – the region’s poorest country – Washington provided vital military, intelligence, logistical and maintenance support, along with reliable diplomatic cover, needed to continue the bombing campaign.
There is evidence that the White House has deliberately aimed to stall peace negotiations between the Houthis and the Saudis, eyeing a resumption of fighting. Biden has been unwilling to apply Washington’s considerable leverage with Riyadh to seal the deal with the Houthis – for instance, by renouncing further US support for the Saudi-led coalition whether fighting resumes or not. A security guarantee would not make a continuation of the war less likely.
The Biden administration is seeking various concessions from Saudi Arabia regarding its relationship with Beijing, including no longer doing business with “Chinese tech giants like Huawei, whose latest telecommunications equipment is banned” in the United States, along with assurances that Riyadh will continue settling oil sales using the US dollar only.
As Friedman put it, Washington “was not amused by reports last year that Saudi Arabia was considering accepting Chinese renminbi to price some oil sales to China instead of the US dollar,” adding “That would have to be canceled.” The White House is also attempting to pressure the Israelis into limiting their economic ties with China, their third-largest trading partner after the US and the European Union.
Biden has escalated Washington’s economic war against Beijing, including by imposing harsh sanctions and attempting to cripple the Chinese semiconductor industry. Concurrently, the administration has expanded the Pentagon’s vast military buildup in the Asia-Pacific, preparing for a future war between the world’s two largest economies.