Connect all the dots and you will get an Israel-Saudi peace ceremony on the White House lawn. But getting there won’t be easy.
When we look at Israel’s situation—in domestic politics and diplomatically—no clear picture emerges; we have to break it down into components.
First, the United States. America is on the eve of the 2024 presidential race, with politically beaten President Joe Biden fighting for survival. He has to deal with the ongoing misconduct of his son Hunter, his support for Ukraine has been a source of growing consternation with Republicans and in the Middle East the Saudis have turned their backs on him and asked China to mediate between them and Iran.
He therefore needs an impressive foreign policy accomplishment. According to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, such an accomplishment could come in the form of the establishment of ties between Riyadh and Jerusalem, potentially transforming the Middle East. Biden said over the weekend that some progress has been made and a deal could be in the offing.
Second component: Saudi Arabia. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited the kingdom last week and offered Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman security guarantees and U.S. weapon systems in exchange for a normalization deal with Israel. The prince responded favorably, so long as Israel makes a gesture toward the Palestinians, such as a settlement moratorium or issuing more permits for Palestinian construction on Area C. But such a gesture cannot be made by the Israeli government in its current makeup.
Third component: Israel. Last week the Knesset passed a key piece of judicial reform legislation—an amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary which limits the ability of courts to strike down ministerial decisions based on the criterion of “reasonableness.” Why did the coalition choose to pass this part of the reform rather than the measures dealing with the appointment of justices and the override clause that can nullify court decisions? The answer was given by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments, from which it appears that he wanted that bill enacted so that Shas leader Aryeh Deri could return to the cabinet, after having been disqualified on reasonableness grounds.
The focus on Deri’s criminal past has all but obscured his rather moderate views on foreign policy. By having the bill passed and bringing him back, Deri could serve as a counterweight to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, paving the way for the gesture toward the Palestinians. If Smotrich or Ben-Gvir threaten to leave the coalition, they would be replaced by Benny Gantz and his National Unity Party—a maneuver that is already in the works.
Connecting these three components into one big puzzle will allow Biden to preside over a peace-signing ceremony on the White House lawn—an optic that he so desperately needs. The Saudis will get the weapons and guarantees they have long asked for, but the big winner will be Israel: Not only will it finally see an end to the conflict with the Sunni world, but it will also get access to the massive Saudi economy, and from there to the markets in Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan. Israel’s diplomatic, economic and strategic standing will improve manyfold.
Connecting all these dots won’t be easy, and will depend to a large extent on Netanyahu’s actions. Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo has claimed that Netanyahu secretly controls his cabinet ministers despite the fact that they appear to be loose cannons and generate negative headlines. If that is the case, Netanyahu would be able to deliver a historic deal by every measure and perhaps even bring about an end to the current turbulence rocking Israel.
Michael Oren was formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, a Member of Knesset, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. His latest book is To All Who Call in Truth (Wicked Son, 2021).