Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 3 May 2024

 

Opinion | Israel and Saudi Arabia Are Trading Places

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Saudi Arabia and Israel are America’s two most important Middle East allies, and the Biden administration is deeply involved with both today, trying to forge a mutual defense treaty with Saudi Arabia and help Israel in its conflicts with Hamas and Iran. But the Biden team has run into an unprecedented situation with these two longtime partners that is creating a huge opportunity and a huge danger for America. It derives from the contrast in their internal politics.

To put it bluntly, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has put his country’s worst religious extremists in jail, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put his country’s worst religious extremists in his cabinet.

And therein lies a tale.

M.B.S., with his laser focus on economic growth after several decades that he has described Saudi Arabia as having been “sleeping,” has unleashed the most important social revolution ever in the desert kingdom — and one that is sending shock waves around the Arab world. It has reached a point where the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are now putting the finishing touches on a formal alliance that could isolate Iran, curb China’s influence in the Middle East and peacefully inspire more positive change in this region than the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan ever did militarily.

M.B.S.’s government did something appalling when it killed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a liberal critic living in the United States, in Istanbul in 2018. M.B.S. has also done something none of his predecessors dared: break the stranglehold that the most conservative Islamists held over Saudi social and religious policy since 1979. This shift has proved so popular among so many Saudi women and young people that women’s participation in the work force jumped to 35 percent from 20 percent between 2018 and 2022, according to a report by the Atlantic Council, and is even higher today.

That is one of the most rapid social changes anywhere in the world. In Riyadh, you see its impact on the city’s streets, in its coffeehouses and in government and business offices. Saudi women aren’t just driving cars; they are driving change, in the diplomatic corps, in the biggest banks and in the recent Saudi women’s premier soccer league. M.B.S.’s radical new vision for his country is nowhere more manifest than in his publicly stated willingness to normalize diplomatic and economic relations with the Jewish state as part of a new mutual defense pact with the United States.

The crown prince wants as peaceful a region as possible, and a Saudi Arabia as secure from Iran as possible, so he can focus on making Saudi Arabia a diversified economic powerhouse.

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That used to be Israel too. Alas, the tragedy of Israel under Netanyahu is that because he has been so desperate to gain and hold power to avoid possible jail time on corruption charges, he has created a governing coalition that has given unprecedented power to two far-right Jewish supremacists with authority in three ministries — defense, finance and national security — and prioritized a judicial coup before it did anything else. Netanyahu has also made unparalleled concessions to ultra-Orthodox rabbis, transferring enormous sums of money to their schools that often don’t teach math, English or civics and most of whose draft-age men refuse to serve in the army at all, let alone alongside women.

Of course, Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy and Israel is a democracy. M.B.S. can order changes that no Israeli prime minister can. Still, leaders in both have to gauge what will enable them to stay in power, and those instincts are driving Netanyahu to make Israel more like the worst of the old Saudi Arabia and M.B.S. to make Saudi Arabia more like the best of the old Israel.

The result of Netanyahu’s alliance with the far right is that Israel can’t take advantage of the tectonic shift in Saudi Arabia — with its offer to normalize relations with the Jewish state and open a road for Israel with the rest of the Muslim world — because doing so would require Israel to pursue a pathway with Palestinians to create two states for two indigenous peoples.

Moreover, without offering some horizon for a two-state solution with non-Hamas Palestinians, Israel can’t forge a permanent security alliance with the coalition of moderate Arab states that helped thwart the barrage of more than 300 drones and missiles that Iran fired at Israel on April 13 in response to Israel’s killing of a senior Iranian military commander and some of his subordinates in Syria. Those Arab states cannot afford to appear to be defending Israel indefinitely if Israel is not working to find moderate Palestinian partners to replace Israel’s control over Gaza and the West Bank.

In other words, Israel today cannot summon the coalitions it needs to thrive as a nation, because it would lead to the breakup of the governing coalition that Netanyahu needs to survive as a politician.

All of this is creating a huge headache for President Biden, who has done more to save the Israeli people from Hamas and Iran than any other American president but has been frustrated by an Israeli prime minister who is more interested in saving himself. Biden’s support for Netanyahu is now costing him politically and curtailing his ability to take full advantage of the changes in the Arabian Peninsula. It could also cost him re-election.

Since M.B.S. began dominating Saudi decision-making in 2016 — in the place of his ailing father, King Salman, Saudi Arabia has basically gone from an incubator of A.Q. — Al Qaeda — to an incubator of A.I.

Indeed, there is a lot of trouble these days between the two most reform-minded leaders in the Arab world: M.B.S. and M.B.Z., Mohammed bin Zayed, the ruler of the United Arab Emirates. But it is good trouble. It is an intense competition over who can partner fastest and deepest with the most important global companies driving A.I.

As the U.A.E.’s most important newspaper, The National, noted on Tuesday: “In the aftermath of Microsoft’s $1.5 billion investment in Abu Dhabi artificial intelligence and cloud company G42, the spotlight is now on the Middle East’s growing stature as a regional leader for global technology. The charge, led by the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, has attracted attention from the likes of Oracle, Google and Amazon and highlights increasing investor confidence in the region, with growing financial backing from, and relations with, the West.”

It is impossible to overstate the power of a nearby good example. When M.B.S. announced in 2018 that Saudi women could attend sporting events like men’s soccer games, Iranian women demanded the same from their ayatollahs. The ayatollahs were forced to relent after a 29-year-old Iranian woman charged with trying to attend a men’s soccer match died in September 2019 after setting herself on fire.

As one young Saudi official recently remarked to me, M.B.S. was able to sideline the religious extremists in the kingdom, without starting a civil war, by unleashing all the pent-up energy of young Saudis, who wanted to realize their full potential by being connected with all the cutting-edge global trends. So these youths just steamrolled the resistance from the roughly 30 percent of Saudis whom I’d describe as hyperconservative. (Saudi sources tell me that about 500 of the most extreme clerics have been locked up. M.B.S. is wisely still paying other very conservative government religious officials, like the religious police, but he has disempowered them — not without personal risk to himself.) Iran, by contrast, has unleashed the full brutality of its religious authorities to steamroll Iranian youths, who went into open civil war with the regime in September 2022 after an Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini died in police custody. She had been arrested for allegedly not properly covering herself in public.

That is why you get scenes like Iranian college students in 2020 refusing to walk on American and Israeli flags that the clerics painted on the ground at the gateways to their universities, or in April booing and honking horns at a soccer match when the regime demanded a moment of silence in honor of the Iranian military commanders killed by Israel. They see Iran’s religious dictators exploiting the Palestinian cause and Hamas to cover the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ brutality against Iran’s own youth.

This is in stark contrast with some of the U.S. college students now demonstrating, who see Israel as the “colonial” aggressor and giving Hamas a free pass, even though it murdered, kidnapped and raped Israelis on Oct. 7, triggering the massive Israeli bombardments that have killed tens of thousands of Gazan civilians, including thousands of children, with seeming indifference.

The key question for the Biden administration and the Saudis today is this: What to do next? The good news is that they are 90 percent done with the mutual defense treaty that they have drawn up, both sides tell me. But they still need to tie down a few key points. These include the precise ways in which the U.S. will control the civilian nuclear energy program that Saudi Arabia will get under the deal; whether the mutual defense component will be explicit, like that between the U.S. and Japan, or less formal, like the understanding between the U.S. and Taiwan; and a long-term commitment for Saudi Arabia to continue to price oil in U.S. dollars, not switch to the Chinese currency.

But the other part of the deal, which is seen as critical to winning support in Congress, is for Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel. That will happen only if Israel agrees to Riyadh’s terms: get out of Gaza, freeze the building of settlements in the West Bank and embark on a three- to five-year “pathway” to establish a Palestinian state in the occupied territories. That state would also be conditioned on the Palestinian Authority undertaking reforms to make it a governing body that Palestinians trust and see as legitimate and Israelis see as effective.

There are a lot of “ifs” and “provided thats” in this equation that seem most unlikely today. They might seem less so when the Gaza war ends and both Israelis and Palestinians add up the terrible costs of not having a permanent peaceful solution and contemplate whether they want more of the same or to make a radical departure.

It is clear to U.S. and Saudi officials that with Netanyahu having thrown in with the far right to stay in power, he’s highly unlikely to agree to any kind of Palestinian statehood that would lead his partners to topple him — unless his political survival dictates otherwise. As a result, the U.S. and the Saudis are considering finalizing the deal and taking it to Congress with the stated proviso that Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Israel the minute Israel has a government ready to meet the Saudi-U.S. terms.

But no decision has been made. U.S. officials know that Israel is in such turmoil today, and with the whole world seemingly coming down on it, it is impossible to really get Israelis to consider the profound long-term political and economic benefits of normalized relations with Saudi Arabia, the world’s most influential Muslim nation and Arab nation.

Hopefully, though, if there can be a permanent end of fighting and a return of all Israelis taken hostage, Israel will hold new elections. And then — maybe, just maybe — the choice on the table for Israelis will not be Bibi or Bibi-lite, but Bibi or a credible pathway to peace with Saudi Arabia and the Palestinians.

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Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Opinion columnist. He joined the paper in 1981 and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award. @tomfriedman  Facebook

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