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Joe Biden Should Press Hold on Saudi-Israel Normalization

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Considering the upcoming U.S. presidential election and recent upheavals in Israeli politics, a more patient strategy toward a grand bargain has a better chance of working than seeking to close the deal as soon as possible.

Amid the horrors of the war in Gaza, a better future awaits the Middle East. A grand bargain is on offer that would establish diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, move toward a two-state solution, and create a bulwark against Iran via a U.S.-Saudi defense treaty.

But we are not there yet. Before normalization, the Saudis insist that Israel take “credible and irreversible” steps toward a two-state solution. The current Israeli government won’t take those steps, meaning normalization will have to wait for a more centrist government. Since the structure of the grand bargain is that nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon, a deal is not at hand. That means the United States should shift focus away from its attempt to get an accord before the presidential election in November. Instead, Washington and Riyadh should lay a firm foundation for the next U.S. president to finish the deal.

To review the bidding in the grand bargain, the United States would commit to a binding defense treaty with Saudi Arabia, provide it with civilian nuclear reactors, streamlined weapons sales, and access to advanced chips for Artificial Intelligence development. Saudi Arabia would recognize Israel, limit Chinese participation in sensitive sectors such as high-tech, and sign a Safeguards Agreement and possibly the Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency to govern the use of nuclear reactors. Israel would commit to a two-state solution.

President Joe Biden wants to conclude the deal soon and bump up his approval ratings during a tight reelection bid. The Biden team has announced that the U.S.-Saudi parts of the deal are near completion, that the relevant planks might be sent to Congress, and that only Netanyahu stands in the way. That policy is well-intentioned but misguided since the chance that Netanyahu will change his mind is virtually nil.

What would the prudent strategy look like? Biden should stop pushing for an agreement this year and instead work with Riyadh on issuing a series of joint statements laying out the way forward. The administration should craft these documents as a lodestar for the next U.S. president to follow in consummating a deal. The Biden team should make clear where the sides agree, where differences exist, and whether there are additional arenas of potential U.S.-Saudi agreement that both sides could pursue.

In addition, the administration should informally vet on the Hill those planks of the deal that need Congressional approval or review, including the defense treaty and the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement that some members of Congress might view as a proliferation risk. Even if votes won’t be cast until the next Congress, it is important to soundboard the arguments for this potentially game-changing Middle East deal sooner. But informal should be the watchword here; the goal of the vetting should be to pave the path to a deal, not to put pressure on Netanyahu that won’t work.

Moreover, this fall, the administration should conduct briefings on how the next administration could try to close this U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal. Even though it would be a bitter pill, prominent Republicans should be invited. The Biden team would show true leadership by placing this deal above politics.

Lastly, the Biden administration should avoid looming pitfalls. Applying too much pressure on Netanyahu to join the deal could cast him as a defender of Israeli sovereignty and security, prolonging his rule. Also, some observers believe the administration is considering a “less for less” strategy—tabling normalization for now and consummating as many bilateral U.S.-Saudi agreements as possible. That would be a mistake. Saudi recognition of Israel is essential to get the U.S. Congress on board. If Riyadh gets most of the goodies up front, the incentive to follow through on normalization diminishes—and the deal could fall apart.

A slower strategy toward the grand bargain has a good chance of working. The deal would probably be low-hanging fruit for either a second Biden or Trump administration. If Biden wins, all the relationships are in place. If Trump wins, he will probably put the grand bargain near the top of his foreign policy agenda. His fondness for the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia, and his desire for an early political win would drive this effort to conclude a landmark deal.

The next U.S. president, be it Biden or Trump, will likely garner the requisite sixty-seven votes in the Senate for a formal treaty. It will indeed be a tough sell to convince two-thirds of that body to extend an iron-clad security guarantee to an autocracy residing in a dangerous region. However, the prize—normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations—should be sufficiently alluring on both sides of the aisle to garner the votes necessary for the ratification of a formal alliance, regardless of who the president is.

Finally, getting Israel to make concrete commitments to move toward a two-state solution can occur only in a post-Netanyahu era. Some polling data shows Israelis are open to a more moderate government, preferring centrist Benny Gantz as prime minister, while other polls show Netanyahu in the lead. Most Israelis oppose a two-state solution, so if there were to be a more moderate leader of the next government, he or she would have to show tremendous leadership. One scenario for elections involves Gantz’s recent departure from the unity government, which stoked opposition to it and led to an early vote. Israeli electoral procedures are slow, so even if the Netanyahu government were to fall, a new government would not be up and running until late this year or in 2025. But if this happens, the grand bargain becomes more likely.

The Biden administration should slow down its push for the grand bargain. Patience is the wiser course. Set the table. Wait for the next president to close the deal.