By Jonathan S. Tobin
President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy team has talked a lot about re-emphasizing diplomacy and re-engaging with allies after what they claim was the trashing of old friends during the presidency of Donald Trump. But that doesn’t appear to include America’s two most important allies in the Middle East: Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The Israelis have been reassured that Biden still regards their security as important and that any disputes between the two countries will be handled behind the scenes, rather than highlighted in an effort to achieve more “daylight” between the two allies, as was the case with former-President Barack Obama. Still, Israelis know that the closeness that existed between them and the Trump administration is a thing of the past.
But that’s a far cry from the unsubtle message about downgrading relations with the Saudis that Washington has been delivering.
The justification for this decision centers on human rights and the brutal nature of the Saudi regime. The report released last month by the Director of National Intelligence about the murder of journalist Jamaal Khashoggi by the Saudis tied the operation directly to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. The killing of Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate was remarkable primarily for the brazen nature of the crime rather than for revealing anything new about the authoritarian nature of the Saudi government.
The report gives a boost to the chorus of Democratic critics of the U.S.-Saudi relationship who believe that the murder, as well as the brutal war being waged in Yemen, requires Washington to downgrade ties with Riyadh. But even for those who care about human rights and oppose the notion that America should be indifferent to the internal policies of those governments with which it does business, it’s not that simple.
Kicking the Saudis to the curb is inextricably tied to the question of what to do about Iran — a nation that is arguably an even worse human-rights offender and an aggressive Islamist nation that poses a threat to the entire Middle East with or without the nuclear weapons they seek. Just as complicated is the fact that hostility to the Saudis undermines Trump’s main foreign-policy achievement: the Abraham Accords in which a growing number of Gulf states and Muslim countries have been normalizing relations with the State of Israel.
That leaves friends of Jerusalem wondering how a cooler relationship between Washington and Riyadh will impact the push to expand the trend of normalization to the rest of the Arab world. In particular, it’s not clear whether or not the American decision to try and create another rapprochement with Iran will bring the Saudis and other Arab nations closer to Israel or drive them apart.
The optimistic view from an Israeli perspective is to remember that the warm ties between Israel and the Arab states weren’t merely a creation of Trump. It’s fair to say that although the Saudis have been looking for an exit ramp from the no-win confrontation with Israel for the last two decades, Obama’s appeasement of Iran pushed them into Israel’s arms. Faced with the reality that the United States was ignoring their interests and security by empowering and enriching Iran, they naturally turned to the only nation in the region that shared their antipathy to the genocidal terrorist-supporting regime in Tehran.
Biden’s foreign-policy team is not opposed in principle to Arab and Muslim nations deciding to no longer be held hostage to Palestinian intransigence and to recognize that they have mutual security and economic interests with the Jewish state. Yet Biden staffers have little interest in fostering such ties as long as they are based on a common hostility to an Iranian regime with which they want to re-engage.
As was the case in Egypt, where a desire to advance the cause of democracy led Obama to undermine the regime of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011 — and thus set the stage for a Muslim Brotherhood takeover that was ultimately overthrown by a popular military coup — it’s a mistake to think that the United States has more choices than either an authoritarian regime that is friendly to the West or an Islamist one that is not.
That’s not only true with respect to the internal governance of the Arabian Peninsula but also in terms of the regional balance of power. In damning MBS and recalibrating relations by ending weapons sales to the Saudis and their allies in the United Arab Emirates (the latter nation that was promised advanced jets as part of its decision to solidify ties with Israel and a pledge that Biden has already reneged on), Biden’s advisers may claim to be standing up for human rights. But undermining these American allies merely advances the interests of Iran, a tyrannical theocratic regime with a human-rights record—both in terms of internal oppression and its brutal record of adventurism abroad aiding the barbarous Assad regime in Syria, their murderous Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries in Lebanon or the ruthless Houthis in Yemen — that is arguably far worse.
What can the Saudis and other Arab states do to protect their interests in the face of America abandoning them?
According to some sources, the breach with the Americans could draw the Saudis and other Arab states closer to Israel. Indeed, a desire to make things right with the Americans might impel Riyadh to break down and recognize Israel itself, rather than persist with the current status in which the two countries are actively allied but do so without formal recognition.
It’s far from clear that’s the most likely outcome.
As much as MBS and the Saudis value their relationship with Israel and regard it now as essential to their security, there is a big difference between them and the other Arab countries. The Saudi royal family sees its legitimacy as rooted in its status as the guardian of Islamic holy places in Mecca and Medina. Recognizing the Jewish state makes sense from a realpolitik perspective, but not from a religious one since such a move would render the Saudis even more vulnerable to attacks from Islamist critics.
There’s also the possibility that Washington won’t merely punish the Saudis but actively pressure them and the other Gulf states to make their peace with Iran. Indeed, muscling them into bowing to American demands may be a much higher priority for the administration than strong-arming Israel into making concessions to a Palestinian Authority that even Washington’s most ardent two-state solution advocates know won’t make peace.
While it’s hard to imagine such a turn of events right now, stranger things have happened in the history of the Middle East.
Downgrading relations with the Saudis might bring them even closer to Israel and further solidify an Israel-Arab alliance against Iran that could be powerful enough to deter Iranian aggression and transcend Washington’s feckless efforts to appease Tehran.
But if the Biden administration, despite its claims of support for the Abraham Accords, decides that it wants to actively trash them so as to assist its agenda of making nice with Iran or try to bring the dead-in-the-water peace process with the Palestinians back to life, it’s not inconceivable that they could wind up sabotaging the greatest advance toward Middle East peace in decades.
Seen from that perspective, Biden’s swipe at the Saudis isn’t so much a blow struck for human rights as possibly a devastating defeat for the cause of genuine peace between Jews and Arabs.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate.