WASHINGTON – Iran is not the only Middle Eastern country on which Israel and the United States seemingly disagree. Israeli officials and top Democratic lawmakers are also at odds over the White House’s still-lukewarm relations with Saudi Arabia.
Since assuming power in January 2021, the Biden administration has stopped short of living up to campaign promises of making Saudi Arabia a global pariah. However, U.S.-Saudi ties have nevertheless deteriorated in that time – particularly following the administration’s February 2021 intelligence report that castigated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
The Biden administration now finds itself at an inflection point with Riyadh due to the ongoing Iran nuclear deal talks and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Most urgently, the Americans want Saudi Arabia to significantly increase oil production to quell soaring prices amid Russian sanctions and domestic inflation.
Saudi Arabia has declined, however, citing its existing agreement with OPEC and other allies. Reports that Crown Prince Mohammed also declined to speak with Joe Biden last month did not help matters. And despite a White House refutation, it illustrates the current state of U.S.-Saudi affairs – amplified by the kingdom’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war and global Russia sanctions.
Israeli officials are concerned that a stalled U.S.-Saudi rapprochement could spark a domino effect, leading to U.S. disengagement from the Middle East and creating a power vacuum for Iran to fill. Others are concerned that Saudi Arabia may then strategically align itself with China and Russia.
Saudi Arabia and Israel openly share intelligence on Iran, and a potential Saudi realignment would put Israel in a tenuous position with its strategic superpower allies.
Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog articulated Israel’s concerns last Thursday, stressing the need for the United States to improve its relations with the Saudis for the sake of regional security – particularly in the face of the U.S.’ potential reentry into the Iran nuclear deal.
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“I understand the U.S. concerns, but I think Saudi Arabia is a hugely important actor in our part of the world and the Islamic world as a whole. And it’s important, in my view – to the extent possible – to fix relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia,” Herzog said at a breakfast event organized by the Al-Monitor website that focuses on the Middle East.
“Certainly if you’re going to do an Iran deal, I think it’s extremely important to our part of the world that this will be done,” Herzog continued, adding that “strategically speaking – and I’m not ignoring all the difficulties – I think that [relations improving between the United States and Saudi Arabia] is very important for our region.”
Another factor in Israel’s support for reconciliation is Jerusalem’s hope that Saudi Arabia will formally sign up to the Abraham Accords, joining previous signatories the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in normalizing ties with Israel.
“Israel continues to seek to normalize relations around the region – and Saudi Arabia is the crown jewel,” says Atlantic Council Nonresident Senior Fellow Carmiel Arbit.
“An Abraham Accords peace agreement won’t be possible without Saudi-U.S. rapprochement, but Israel certainly doesn’t shy from acting as broker for those seeking improved relations with Washington. But this is a long-term ambition,” she says, adding that “their immediate fear that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [nuclear deal] will embolden Iran and its proxies is once again bringing Israel closer to its Sunni Muslim allies – who share these concerns.”
Herzog’s pleas stand in stark contrast to a letter sent from 32 leading House Democrats to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken the day prior to the ambassador’s remarks. In it, the lawmakers – spanning the party’s ideological spectrum – told the administration that “a recalibration of the U.S.-Saudi partnership is long overdue.”
“Our continued support for the Saudi monarchy, which systematically and ruthlessly represses its own citizens, targets critics all over the world, carries out a brutal war in Yemen, and bolsters authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa, runs counter to U.S. national interests and damages the credibility of the United States to uphold our values,” wrote the lawmakers, who included Reps. Gregory Meeks and Adam Schiff, who chair the Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees, respectively.
“The United States can continue our status-quo of broad support for an autocratic partner, or we can stand for human rights and rebalance our relationship to reflect our values and interests,” they added. “How we move forward will send a strong message to democracies, activists fighting for democracy, and human rights defenders and will play an important role in our fight against authoritarianism around the world.”
An Israeli carrot
Experts from both sides of the political spectrum agree that Herzog’s comments and the Democrats’ letter are at odds with each other.
Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft Executive Vice President Trita Parsi says this split is reflective of the broader divergence between the United States and Israel on strategic matters in the Middle East.
“Israel’s priority is to keep the U. S. military engaged and present in the Middle East – an interest it shares with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Moreover, it seeks to convince Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords,” he says.
“Being able to deliver a softer line on Saudi Arabia in Washington is one of the carrots Israel is putting in front of [Crown Prince Mohammed] in order to get a yes from Riyadh on the Abraham Accords,” Parsi says. He stresses that “the U.S. benefits little from a Saudi Arabia that continues to act recklessly in the region, makes a mockery of the U.S.’ human rights policy and pays more attention to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin than to Biden.”
Foundation for Defense of Democracies Senior Vice President for Research Jonathan Schanzer, meanwhile, believes the congressional letter reflects a partisan line of thinking currently in vogue among Democrats. “It is utterly unhelpful at a moment, punctuated by the Ukraine war, in which the United States desperately needs energy partners, not to mention allies,” he says.
“By contrast, Herzog’s position reflects a nuanced understanding that, despite their flaws, the Saudis can be important friends – especially in light of the recent global tumult,” Schanzer says. He notes that “the looming Iran deal, which the Biden White House continues to pursue at nearly any cost, also continues to push Israel into the arms of the Saudis.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia “remain adamantly opposed to a deal that will empower their sworn common enemy with a lengthy track record of proxy violence across the region,” he adds.