For the hundreds of thousands of Israeli democracy defenders who tried to block Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial coup Monday, the stripping of the Israeli Supreme Court's key powers to curb the executive branch surely feels like a stinging defeat. I get it, but don't totally despair. Help may be on the way from talks between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Yes, you read that right.
When I interviewed President Joe Biden in the Oval Office recently, my column focused on his urging Netanyahu not to ram through the judicial overhaul without even a semblance of national consensus. But that's not all we talked about. The president is wrestling with whether to pursue the possibility of a U.S.-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.
After discussions in the past few days among Biden, his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Brett McGurk, the top White House official handling Middle East policy, Biden has dispatched Sullivan and McGurk to Saudi Arabia, where they arrived Thursday morning, to explore the possibility of some kind of U.S.-Saudi-Israeli-Palestinian understanding.
The president still has not made up his mind whether to proceed, but he gave a green light for his team to probe with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to see if some kind of deal is possible and at what price. Closing such a multinational deal would be time-consuming, difficult and complex, even if Biden decides to take it to the next level right away. But the exploratory talks are moving ahead now, and they're important for two reasons.
First, a U.S.-Saudi security pact that produces normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and the Jewish state — while curtailing Saudi-China relations — would be a game changer for the Middle East, bigger than the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Because peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam's two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, would open the way for peace between Israel and the whole Muslim world, including giant countries like Indonesia and maybe even Pakistan. It would be a significant Biden foreign policy legacy.
Second, if the U.S. forges a security alliance with Saudi Arabia — on the conditions that it normalize relations with Israel and that Israel make meaningful concessions to the Palestinians — Netanyahu's ruling coalition of Jewish supremacists and religious extremists would have to answer this question: You can annex the West Bank, or you can have peace with Saudi Arabia and the whole Muslim world, but you can't have both, so which will it be?
I'd love to see Israel's far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, go on Israeli television and explain to the Israeli people why it is in Israel's interest to annex the West Bank and its 2.9 million Palestinian inhabitants — forever — rather than normalize ties with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Muslim world.
But before such a choice — annexation or normalization — can be brought before this extremist Israeli government, a lot of things have to be agreed to by a lot of people.
The Saudis are seeking three main things from Washington: a NATO-level mutual security treaty that would enjoin the U.S. to come to Saudi Arabia's defense if it is attacked (most likely by Iran); a civilian nuclear program, monitored by the U.S.; and the ability to purchase more advanced U.S. weapons, like the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile defense system.
Among the things the U.S. wants from the Saudis are an end to the fighting in Yemen; an unprecedentedly large Saudi aid package to Palestinian institutions in the West Bank; and significant limits on the growing relationship between Saudi Arabia and China.
Just as important, though, is what the Saudis would demand of Israel to preserve the prospect of a two-state solution — the way the United Arab Emirates demanded that Netanyahu forgo any annexation of the West Bank as a price for their Abraham Accords.
The Saudi leadership is not particularly interested in the Palestinians or knowledgeable about the intricacies of the peace process.
But if the Biden team made a deal without a significant Palestinian component, it would simultaneously strike a death blow to the Israeli democracy movement — by giving Netanyahu a huge geopolitical prize for free after he just did something so antidemocratic — and to the two-state solution, the cornerstone of U.S.-Middle East diplomacy.
I don't believe Biden will do that.
"It will be hard enough for President Biden to sell any deal like this to the U.S. Congress," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, who is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, which funds the State Department. "But I can assure you that there will be a strong core of Democratic opposition to any proposal that does not include meaningful, clearly defined and enforceable provisions to preserve the option of a two-state solution and to meet President Biden's own demand that Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal measures of freedom and dignity. These elements are essential to any sustainable peace in the Middle East."
I believe that, at a minimum, the Saudis and Americans could (and should) demand four things from Netanyahu for such a huge prize as normalization and trade with the most important Arab Muslim state:
› An official promise not to annex the West Bank — ever.
› No new West Bank settlements or expansion outward of existing settlements.
› No legalization of wildcat Jewish settlement outposts.
› And transferring some Palestinian-populated territory from Area C in the West Bank (now under full Israeli control) to Areas A and B (under Palestinian Authority control) — as provided for in the Oslo Accords.
In return, the Palestinian Authority would have to endorse Saudi Arabia's peace deal with Israel.
Truth be told, the Palestinian Authority is in no position to engage in peace talks with Israel today. It's a mess. The Palestinians need to remake their government, but in the meantime, the far-right ministers in Israel's Cabinet are trying to absorb as much of the West Bank as fast as they can. The urgent need is to stop that immediately — but not with another dose of finger-wagging from the State Department about how "deeply troubled" the U.S. is about Israeli settlements. Rather, the best move is a big strategic initiative that has something significant for everyone, except the zealots on all sides.
The New York Times