U.S. Pursues Defense Treaty with Saudi Arabia to Boost Israel Normalization

Date: June 9, 2024

News Category: Geopolitical Insights

Country: United States, Saudi Arabia, Israel

Location: Washington, D.C.; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Tel Aviv, Israel

The Biden administration is on the verge of finalizing a landmark defense treaty with Saudi Arabia as part of a strategic effort to foster diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Israel. This unprecedented move aims to elevate Saudi Arabia’s regional standing while further entrenching the U.S. military role in the Middle East. However, the success of this diplomatic initiative depends heavily on Israel’s willingness to support the establishment of a Palestinian state and bring an end to the ongoing war in Gaza. This complex geopolitical maneuver reflects a significant shift in U.S. foreign policy and has profound implications for regional stability and international relations.

Geopolitical Insights

The Strategic Alliance Agreement

The Biden administration is close to finalizing the Strategic Alliance Agreement with Saudi Arabia, a treaty that would commit the U.S. to defend the Gulf nation if it were attacked. This historic agreement is modeled loosely on the U.S.-Japan mutual security pact of 1960 and represents the first such commitment with an authoritarian nation since then. In exchange for the U.S. defense commitment, Saudi Arabia would grant Washington access to its territory and airspace to protect American interests and regional partners. The treaty aims to bind Riyadh closer to Washington, prohibiting China from building bases in the kingdom or pursuing security cooperation with Saudi Arabia. This strategic alignment is intended to elevate Saudi Arabia’s regional standing and entrench the U.S. military role in the Middle East, particularly in the wake of the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the ensuing Gaza conflict.

Conditions for Normalization

Central to the success of the Strategic Alliance Agreement is Israel’s commitment to a two-state solution for the Palestinians. The U.S. has positioned this as a critical condition for the broader diplomatic push, aiming to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. This normalization is seen as a long-sought goal for Israel, potentially opening doors to greater acceptance in the Arab and Muslim worlds. However, this comes with significant hurdles, as the current Israeli government and much of its public remain opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state. The ongoing war in Gaza further complicates this diplomatic effort, with months of fruitless cease-fire talks and a recent Israeli raid to retrieve hostages from the territory highlighting the intense and unresolved nature of the conflict. Saudi Arabia has made it clear that any normalization deal must be accompanied by irreversible and irrevocable steps toward the establishment of a Palestinian state within several years.

Regional Implications

The proposed treaty’s implications for the broader Middle East region are profound. A security alliance with the U.S. would significantly enhance Saudi Arabia’s standing and security, positioning it as the only Arab state with a formal U.S. defense treaty. This move could exacerbate tensions with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, which has been deepening its ties with Russia. Additionally, the treaty is expected to disrupt China’s strategic ambitions in the Middle East by binding Saudi Arabia closer to the U.S. on security, technology, and long-term economic and commercial efforts. U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan has emphasized that Israel’s long-term security depends on its regional integration and normal relations with Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. By ensuring Saudi Arabia is more fulsomely tied to the U.S., the treaty could help present a powerful front to deter aggression and uphold regional stability.

Historical Insight:

  1. 1960: Revision of the U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty.
  2. 1990: Deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia to defend against Iraqi invasion.
  3. 2001: September 11 attacks, with 15 of the 19 hijackers being Saudi nationals.
  4. 2008: U.S. enshrines its commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge.
  5. 2018: Assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives.
  6. 2024: Ongoing efforts to finalize the U.S.-Saudi defense treaty and encourage Israel-Saudi normalization.

Political Challenges and Legislative Hurdles

The proposed Strategic Alliance Agreement must secure a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate to become law, a significant challenge given the current political landscape. The treaty’s success is unlikely without being tied to a Saudi commitment to normalize ties with Israel, which in turn depends on progress toward a Palestinian state. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has indicated that the U.S. is pressing for a cease-fire agreement in Gaza as a practical matter, though it isn’t a formal requirement for the normalization push. The cease-fire negotiations have been complex, with Hamas demanding a permanent cease-fire and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposing such an agreement, arguing it would undermine Israeli security. The broader deal, which includes the defense treaty, also encompasses U.S. support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program with uranium enrichment, another highly sensitive issue.

Strategic and Military Considerations

The Pentagon has been increasingly involved in the treaty negotiations, recognizing the strategic importance of a U.S.-Saudi alliance. The draft treaty includes provisions for a parallel Defense Cooperation Agreement, which can be enacted by executive order to enhance weapons sales, intelligence sharing, and strategic planning on joint threats, including terrorism and Iran. This military cooperation would reinforce the U.S. commitment to Saudi security and signal a long-term partnership aimed at countering regional threats and maintaining stability. The potential establishment of an independent Palestinian state would require significant reforms within the Palestinian Authority and major concessions from Netanyahu, who has historically opposed Palestinian statehood but may be pressured to temper his stance under the right conditions. The Israeli public’s growing opposition to a two-state solution, particularly after the Hamas-led October 7 attack, poses an additional challenge to the diplomatic effort.

The proposed U.S.-Saudi defense treaty represents a pivotal moment in Middle Eastern geopolitics. Its success hinges on a complex interplay of regional dynamics, including Israel’s commitment to a Palestinian state and the broader implications for U.S. foreign policy. As negotiations near completion, the potential for a historic shift in regional alliances looms large, promising to reshape the strategic landscape of the Middle East. The treaty’s successful implementation could bolster Saudi security, counterbalance Iranian influence, and limit China’s strategic advancements, marking a significant geostrategic victory for Washington. However, achieving this ambitious goal will require navigating political challenges, securing legislative approval, and fostering a conducive environment for Israeli-Saudi normalization.

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