The Biden administration has been pushing hard to bring about full normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Bringing Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords – the normalization agreement the Trump administration brokered between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco – now seems key to U.S strategy in the region.
The Washington debate has focused primarily on whether the normalization effort can succeed. While the odds are long (especially in the Senate, where a formal pact would need 67 votes), it’s hard to see why not, if Biden is really willing to pay the costs. Israel is keen to accomplish this goal without major concessions towards the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia has pushed for a U.S. security guarantee, support for a civilian nuclear energy program, and some as-yet poorly defined gestures towards the Palestinians. The Biden administration seems determined to do whatever it takes to close the deal – even if nobody seems exactly sure why.
Biden has put a great deal of political capital into continuing the Abraham Accords, the Trump administration’s signature Middle East foreign policy achievement. That’s puzzling for a lot of reasons: the administration’s efforts to distance itself from the previous one; justifiable skepticism over the likely significance of the Abraham Accords; Biden’s initially hard line towards Saudi Arabia; and the widespread belief that Trump’s foreign policy goals were primarily about domestic political considerations. Critics like Dalia Dassa Kaye question handing a political victory to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even as he dismantles Israeli democracy and escalates the de facto annexation of the West Bank. Others question the offer of an unprecedented security pact to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman despite his ongoing human rights abuses, open antipathy towards Biden, actions to keep oil prices high, and flirtations with China and Russia.
And almost everyone thinks that normalization will be bad for the Palestinians. While U.S. officials have made noises about the need to address Palestinian concerns, the administration has shown no signs of making any serious push on the subject (even Trump’s quickly forgotten “Deal of the Century” at least pretended). The White House evidently believes that despite reports that Saudi Arabia had ended talks about normalization because of its doubts that Israel’s right wing government could deliver on the Palestinian issue, it will likely settle for face-saving moves on Palestine such as offers to fund the Palestinian Authority or vague promises to resume negotiations if it gets the security guarantee it really wants. The Palestinian Authority, for its part, has made very limited asks – mostly designed to keep itself in power rather than to advance any serious Palestinian national interests.
A new regional order
The Abraham Accords, like it or not, currently represent the administration’s only real Middle East strategy. At a time when Washington has little to say about virtually anything else in the region, senior U.S. officials have devoted a remarkable level of effort to this one issue.
Biden’s strange obsession with Israeli-Saudi normalization makes more sense if it is understood as regional order making of a particular kind. The Biden team sees an opportunity to rewire the region in fundamental ways, taking advantage of the recent de-escalation of the intense regional rivalries and fears of war with Iran that characterized the Trump years. They have no illusions that this new order would be a liberal one. But after the failures of the Arab uprisings a decade ago and the authoritarian resurgence across the Middle East, and mounting evidence that the U.S. can’t corral regional allies into a shared global vision, the administration seems to have decided that an illiberal order is the best it can get.
For the U.S., Israeli-Arab normalization now seems the key to cementing U.S. centrality in the region as a counterweight to China’s expanding role by making itself once again the core guarantor of the regional security architecture. It’s telling, here, that the administration referenced the Abraham Accords in its announcement at September’s G-20 meeting in Delhi of a new trade corridor linking India to Europe via the Persian Gulf. Of course, regional allies likely don’t see it that way, as they continue to navigate a world they see as multipolar and explore opportunities to position themselves between the West and Asia.
What international relations theory tells us
International Relations theory has thus far had remarkably little to say about the Abraham Accords, given its centrality to U.S. foreign policy and to regional diplomacy over the last few years and the grand hopes being placed on Saudi-Israeli normalization. That’s a mistake.
Realism, the international relations theory that highlights power and the pursuit of the national interest above all, would seem to be in the driver’s seat for explaining what’s going on. Biden’s team has clearly centered the global struggle with China as it seeks to position the U.S. at the center of regional alliances. For all the talk of the defense of a rules-based liberal international order in Ukraine, the Biden administration has set aside such concerns when it comes to an Israel lurching towards autocracy and a manifestly illiberal Saudi Arabia. And, like good Realists, the administration doesn’t think the Palestinian issue poses a major obstacle to a deal that meets the core national interests of both allies. Why would any Realist expect Saudi Arabia to sacrifice its interests for Palestine? The ambivalence U.S. allies in the Middle East have shown towards the Ukraine war – and the proliferation of new regional agreements with China – suggests that they don’t see it in such zero-sum terms: Realists understand perfectly well why regional powers would adopt a hedging approach in an incipient multipolar environment.
Constructivists, who place more emphasis on ideas, norms, and identities, have something to say here as well. The Abraham Accords didn’t change any relationships from a state of war to peace. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the other countries involved all had strong working relationships with Israel prior to the Accords. Moving relations from private to public is not insignificant, especially if it enables new forms of cooperation or triggers a shift in the regional normative environment. But what Realists miss is that no new order is likely to be enduring without some shared normative vision of its purpose – and that requires persuading the region of its value.
The UAE did in fact make a real effort in the first months of the Abraham Accords to win public support for normalization through an audacious public relations campaign. That campaign faltered as the Israeli government made aggressive moves to seize Palestinian land and expand settlements. The Arab Barometer recently found vast majorities of Arab publics opposing the normalization agreements; even the disclosure of ongoing talks between representatives of Libya’s government and Israel under U.S. auspices led to a massive political scandal and the firing of Libyan Foreign Minister Najla al-Magdoush.
And that brings us back to Palestine, a quintessential example of an issue that shapes regional politics because of its normative and political potency rather than because of national strategic interests. Some leaders may actually believe in the Palestinian cause – or they might feel the need to pretend to care, so as to not lose face with Arab publics or political challengers who will call them out if they don’t. Saudi invocation of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, and efforts to secure some concessions (however minor) for the Palestinians, suggest the political importance they perceive in the issue. Even the UAE claimed, however implausibly, to have prevented Israeli annexation of the West Bank when signing its own normalization deal. Without something to show for Palestine, a new regional order based on the Abraham Accords will not be viewed as legitimate.
That’s a problem, because Israel’s extreme right wing government is extremely unlikely to allow concessions towards the Palestinians which even come close to Saudi (or the region’s) expectations. Indeed, critics argue that normalization is more likely to escalate the trend towards Israeli annexation of the West Bank and trigger ever greater Palestinian dispossession and Israeli domestic extremism. Prospects for any real movement on Palestine, to say nothing of the Arab Peace Initiative’s ambitious contours, remain virtually nonexistent.
There’s one more paradigm to consider: regime security theory, which has become dominant among scholars of Middle East international relations. This approach, which centers on the survival interests of the leaders, suggests that Palestine would only matter to the extent that failing to secure the deal would jeopardize the regime in some way.
Here’s where U.S. rhetoric about liberal international orders runs hard into the realities of the Abraham Accords. Normalization with Israel is deeply unpopular across the Arab world. The authoritarian consolidation in the decade following the Arab uprisings has left many Arab regimes so dominant that they don’t fear protests or public mobilization – and, with new surveillance technology and widespread repression, ready to crush any that appears. With Mohammad bin Salman still in the midst of a remarkable effort at social, economic, and political transformation, he may have some concern for the potentially disruptive effects of a deficient deal that is quickly followed by major Israeli-Palestinian violence or even the mass expulsion of Palestinians. Few observers think that Palestine still has such potency in regional politics – but the Arab uprisings of 2011 showed that even small sparks can quickly grow into systemic challenges.
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