After months of shuttle diplomacy between Washington and Riyadh, the shape of the Biden administration’s blockbuster plan to normalise relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia – and in doing so reshape the region’s geopolitics – is coming into view. So are the obstacles.

“There’s a rapprochement under way,” President Joe Biden said at the end of July. It was a cautious shift in tone from the president, who only weeks earlier had downplayed the chances of a diplomatic breakthrough.

The terms are complex. Saudi Arabia would open formal relations with Israel, bringing hopes that other Muslim nations would follow suit. In exchange, Riyadh would secure more US defence support and assistance on a civil nuclear programme. The kingdom would also want Israel to make concessions on the Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood.

The two regional powers would then step up tacit bilateral security co-operation.

It would mark one of the most significant deals in recent Middle East geopolitical history, delivering Israel the prize of diplomatic relations with one of leaders of the Sunni Muslim world and the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites. For Biden, it would constitute a foreign policy victory just as he intensifies his bid for re-election in 2024. And it would satisfy a strategic ambition for the US as it contends with priorities elsewhere.

Creating a lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours has bedevilled American presidents for more than half a century – but also became signature foreign policy achievements for many of Biden’s predecessors.

Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Accords with Egypt and Bill Clinton’s Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Authority both secured Nobel Peace Prizes, although neither resolved the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Donald Trump’s Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are frequently touted even by his critics as a significant diplomatic achievement. But Biden has so far been reluctant to expend as much political capital in the region, and the barriers to a deal are significant.

“A more holistic and cohesive Middle East that is more peaceful is very good for the US, which wants to spend its time, money and efforts elsewhere, especially long term, countering China, and short term countering Russia and supporting Ukraine,” said Jonathan Panikoff, head of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council think-tank.

Saudi demands will be difficult for the US to negotiate and would need approval from a sceptical Congress. Israel could be unwilling to give the concessions to Palestinians that Riyadh may seek. And with US elections looming, the three parties think the window to strike a deal will close within six to nine months, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Some sticking points have been plain for some time. Saudi Arabia has long stipulated that a Palestinian state would be a prerequisite for any deal, as it set out in its 2002 Arab peace initiative that offered recognition to Israel if it withdrew from occupied Arab lands. Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan reiterated that stance this year, even while acknowledging that normalisation with Israel would benefit the region.

But some progress has been made after visits in June to the kingdom by both Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan and secretary of state Antony Blinken. At a meeting with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Blinken indicated that the US was open to Saudi nuclear and security demands, a US official said. Blinken also spoke by phone shortly after the meeting with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

An Israeli official speculated that the increased US engagement with Riyadh may have been a response to China’s success in brokering a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March.

“I do think the Saudis are going to be forced to make a choice between the US and China,” the Israeli official said. “I think there is no chance that they will get a defence treaty … without taking a clear stance on the US side.”

Yet the Saudi-US portion of the deal would need to overcome some tricky details, as well as Congress’s hostility to Riyadh following the Jamal Khashoggi murder in 2018 and recent decisions by the kingdom to slash oil production.

Riyadh has pursued nuclear co-operation with the US for years, and even signed a memorandum of understanding on the matter in 2008. But progress stalled even during the Trump administration, when relations between Riyadh and Washington were warmer.

Saudi Arabia’s ambition to enrich uranium on its own soil will be difficult for the US, which wants Riyadh to agree not to develop the enrichment or reprocessing technologies that could enable production of a nuclear bomb. It also wants Riyadh to sign an additional protocol with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, giving the watchdog more oversight of Saudi nuclear work.

Eric Brewer, deputy vice-president at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said the US and Saudi Arabia could agree to time-bound limits on enrichment and reprocessing, create a joint decision-making mechanism, or sign some sort of accord on transparency should Riyadh want to pursue sensitive nuclear work.

But Saudi Arabia’s security demands will also be hard for the US to satisfy – especially Riyadh’s desire for a pact with Washington that would guarantee US assistance if the kingdom came under attack.

That demand would likely be too much for either the White House or Congress, although former officials say Washington could still offer some carrots to Riyadh. The US has also committed to maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge”, or advantage, in the region, which would need to be taken into account.

“You could build all sorts of provisions into legislation that would provide for advanced security assistance, providing modalities by which the US, Saudi and Israel could come to agreement on what systems can be sold, while preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge,” said Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East Security programme at the Center for a New American Security.

The deal between the US and the UAE offers an example of the difficulties. When the UAE agreed to normalise with Israel in 2020, the Jewish state promised that it would not carry out threats to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, while the Trump administration pledged the Emiratis would get more access to US military hardware, including advanced F-35 fighter jets.

But talks between the US and UAE over the sale of F-35s have since stalled, with Washington worried about sensitive information being leaked to China, and Abu Dhabi frustrated by restrictions on the jets’ use, people familiar with the discussions said.

Any grand bargain between the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel may also hinge on the parties agreeing more substantial concessions to the Palestinians than were offered in the Abraham Accords, which, despite withdrawing a threat to annex parts of the West Bank, failed to prevent continued expansion of Israeli settlements.

“Part of the x factor actually isn’t in Washington, it’s really in Jerusalem,” said Lord. “It’s unclear what, if anything, Riyadh will demand of the Israelis with respect to the Palestinian conflict.”

People familiar with Saudi thinking said the kingdom believed Palestinian leaders – who are not party to the talks – needed to be more flexible with Israel, which could in turn allow the US to pressure Israel into concessions for the Palestinians.

Another headwind is the Israeli government itself. Netanyahu has never offered more than perfunctory support for Palestinian statehood, and has repeatedly said he would not allow any concessions that he deemed a threat to Israeli security. Diplomats also do not expect he would make any concessions on Jerusalem, whose status is disputed, particularly after Trump recognised it as Israel’s capital and moved the US embassy there in 2018.

And while the US might demand settlement freezes in occupied Palestinian territory, or land swaps, Israel’s far right-wing government, which includes cabinet-level Zionist settlers pressing for permanent annexation of the West Bank and expansion of settlements, is unlikely to agree.

The Israeli official downplayed the chances of settlement freezes. Israel does “not see territorial compromises happening”, the official added. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023