A Saudi-Israeli Deal Is Likely to Take Years, Not Weeks

This commentary was originally published in The Messenger on September 19, 2023. 

American officials love diplomatic processes in the Middle East. From Camp David to Madrid, from Oslo to Geneva, to Shepherdstown and beyond, senior U.S. officials have tried for decades to pressure, seduce, and cajole Middle Eastern leaders. Sometimes those processes result in treaties, but more often, they don’t. Even so, the mere existence of a years-long process gives focus to U.S. policy and helps sustain senior officials’ attention.

The Biden administration’s efforts to broker a Saudi-Israeli agreement is only the most recent in a long line of U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. While hopes are running increasingly high, a substantial agreement is likely to take years. “Peace processing” is a good business in the Middle East, but expectations here are running far ahead of reality.

For many in Israel and the United States, Saudi recognition of Israel has long been the grand prize in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has unique gravity in the Arab world and in the Muslim world, and for many years Saudi Arabia led Arab and Muslim rejection of Israel. While many celebrate Israel’s treaties with its neighbors, and more recently the Abraham Accords, there is a widespread belief that a Saudi-Israeli agreement would represent a step-change in Israel’s regional ties, decisively end its isolation, and pave the way for a more peaceful and prosperous region.

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program