Israel-Saudi Arabia Deal: A Balance of Influence by the US Delayed?

  • Given the magnitude of the problem, post the 10-7 attacks by Hamas, Mohammed bin Salman might be reluctant to proceed with the agreement.
  • As terrorism spreads, overlapping with the Palestinian cause, it becomes imperative for the Saudis to counter-balance certain players in the region.
  • India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) seeks to emphasise the dire need of India to counterbalance China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), thus explaining the emphasis on the Saudi-Israel rapprochement for the success of this infrastructural project. 

In an interview with the American network Fox News, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) spoke on the normalisation of ties with the historical regional foe, Israel, and said that talks for the first time seemed ‘real and serious’.

From total hostility and no dialogue to Riyadh’s involvement in a comprehensive peace plan, such as the introduction of the Arab Peace initiative (2002) for the long-overdue settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, to back-door diplomacy in recent years, the Saudi-Israel relationship has come a long way. 26 September 2023, marked the first-ever Israeli minister to have landed on the soil of Saudi Arabia as Israel’s Tourism Minister Haim Katz arrived in the kingdom as part of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation. 

What made Saudis and the Israelis come closer to each other? The answer lies in the convergence between the two nation-states with respect to Iran, which is leading to superseding their historical divergences, perhaps due to growing economic interests overpowering political interests. However, this couldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the third party, the United States. 

The US Patronage

The US has a record of being the historical mediator in the Israel-Palestine conflict, beginning with the early diplomatic efforts in the UN resolution 242 of the six-day war (1967). Thereafter, the Camp David Accords (1978) normalised ties between Egypt and Israel and thus, Egypt became the first-ever Arab nation-state to recognise Israel; the Oslo Accords (1993) between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), whereby each recognised other’s existence and the most recent Abraham accords (2020), establishing the ties between Arab nations (UAE, Bahrain and Morocco) and Israel. Following the legacy, the US seems to be making consistent efforts towards adding Saudi Arabia to the list, especially at a time when its mediating role was challenged by the People’s Republic of China’s recent strategic influential role in peace-making between Iran (US rival) and Saudi Arabia, one of the most difficult deals to be brokered in history till now.

“It would really change the prospects of the entire region far into the future,” the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken said on CBS News of Israel’s expanding relations with Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Sunni Islam nation in the region. “Now, who’s opposed to that? Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran. So, I think that speaks volumes. And there are really two paths before the region.” Stating this, Mr Blinken also specified that the deal is not there to jeopardise the two-state solution for the cause of the Palestinians. 

US-Israel Unending Bonhomie 

There are abundant examples of how the US maintains a close bond with Israel despite occasional tensions, such as those that occurred under the Obama administration (2009–2017), which led to the JCPOA with Iran. The unmatched power of the Israel Lobby has been consistent and they have managed to be in the forefront regarding their influence on American foreign policy. The US has consistently supported Israel in terms of military defence systems like the renowned Iron Dome, transfer of technology and intelligence, as well as by supporting UNSC resolutions in favour of Israel. The recent attack by Hamas on Israel again led the US to provide unsolicited support despite its ongoing disappointment with the basic law passed by the Knesset regarding the judicial overhaul, undermining democracy. Therefore, one can assert that Israel’s victory and its ability to uphold its existence up to this point wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for this support.

US-Saudi Arabia Relations- Divergently Convergent Partners?

Notwithstanding the petrodollar partnership (the 1970s), the two partners’ erratic relationship has concisely encountered challenges over the years. Beginning with the oil embargo and continuing through the US-Iran pact, growing tensions resulting from the 9/11 terrorist attack, issues with democracy and human rights are among the host of several other issues, especially the challenge for the US due to the gradual closeness of the Kingdom to the PRC. It is surprising how things have swung around since Riyadh first expressed its uneasiness with the US in 2015 owing to the JCPOA with Iran. 

Despite the divergences, a strong convergence with respect to their national interests in contemporary geopolitics resides. With the existence of a security dilemma among states, Riyadh’s case concerning Tehran is a classic example. Along with that, the nexus between Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, one cannot rule out the possibility of the usage of Nuclear weapons by non-state actors in an extreme scenario, pointing towards Saudi’s apprehension over Iran’s possible subterfuge perhaps, continues to stay. The Crown Prince MbS recently stated in an interview with the Fox News Channel that “if they get one, we have to get one”, referring to Iran while also stating how nuclear weapons are bad for the world and that the world cannot see another Hiroshima.

In order to cast aside this insecurity, Riyadh expects a pact with the US to safeguard and retain its regional security standing by providing a military pact and an approximate non-NATO ally status akin to that given to Israel, including extended deterrence. The intention of the Saudis seems less towards securing peace in the region and more towards its national interest fulfilment, evident from the gradual transformation in support for the Palestinian cause from explicit demand for the “two states solution” to merely limiting the Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank.

The Timely/ Untimely Roadblock

The ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict, which began on October 7, referred to as the Yom-Kippur War of 2023, has posed a grave challenge to this deal. Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip, stated on Al Jazeera that “all the agreements of normalisation that you (Arab states) signed with (Israel) will not end this conflict.” One of the reasons Hamas attacked Israel so hard and caused its defence system to fail could have been the covert romance between MbS and Benjamin Netanyahu. Along with the growing insecurity of being left out of the picture as each Arab state has been gradually normalising their ties with Israel, went out of the pan and into the fire with Netanyahu’s hard-line approach to dealing with Palestine. This signifies how Hamas, along with its ally Arab states, have been keeping track of Israel’s diplomatic manoeuvres. 

The war in West Asia has never remained limited to Israel and Palestine but included other players forming two camps, one being in favour of Israel, i.e., the West, and the other being against Israel, i.e., Arab states, most prominently Iran, Lebanon-based Hezbollah, Kuwait, Iraq and Qatar. History dictates the engagement of Iran in a sort of shadow war upon Israel with the help of its proxy axis of resistance, which includes anti-Israeli groups in Lebanon and Syria, which also led Hamas in the present attack to take advantage of the loopholes at comparatively cheap rates as against Israel’s expensive Iron Dome. Though it has denied any direct involvement, it celebrated the recent attack by Hamas. 

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said, “We kiss the hands” of those who planned the attack.”  Statements from Hamas leader Osama Hamdan in Lebanon clearly state the attack as a reminder that supporting Israel’s security demands would be detrimental to the peace in the region.

Given the magnitude of the problem, MbS might be reluctant to proceed with the agreement. However, delving deeper into the matter reveals that the axis of resistance is strengthening and, as terrorism spreads, it is overlapping with the Palestinian cause, making it imperative for Saudis to counter-balance certain players in the region. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s influence over its policies has changed under MbS, from political to economic, over time. Claims like “the new Europe is the Middle East” have caused it to veer from conservatism towards modernity as the world gradually moves away from oil as a major source of income in search of other renewable sources. The grand plan of Vision 2030 of MbS is also a reason why Saudi Arabia would not act hastily. 

India’s Conundrum in West Asia

This agreement is a pre-requisite for the success of another recent initiative agreed upon during India’s G-20 presidency, known as the IMEC, which aims to connect India, West Asia, and Europe. Since the corridor consists of both Saudi Arabia and Israel, it is essential that they establish a diplomatic route, as other Arab governments did under the Abraham Accords in 2020. IMEC seems like a prospective tool to manoeuvre peace in the region with political and economic development.

Over the years, India and Israel have established a strategic connection. Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel in 2017, reflecting de-hyphenation policy. India’s second-largest trade partner, particularly in defence and agriculture, perhaps is one of the reasons why India has unambiguously proclaimed its solidarity for Israel against Hamas terrorism. Notwithstanding, India continues to advocate the two-state solution while sending contributions to the Palestinian refugees through UNRWA. Furthermore, IMEC seeks to emphasise the dire need of India to counterbalance the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to reduce its unrelenting assertion of authority, thus explaining the emphasis on the Saudi-Israel rapprochement for the success of this infrastructural project. 

(Ms Nandini Khandelwal is a Post Graduate Student in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Pondicherry University. Her interest is in Conflict Studies with a special reference to West Asia and North Africa)

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