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HomeHeadlineCatalysts and Challenges: Unpacking the 'Big Middle East Deal'

Catalysts and Challenges: Unpacking the ‘Big Middle East Deal’

Yuksel Durgut*

The role played by China in normalizing diplomatic relations between the perennial rivals of the Middle East region, Saudi Arabia and Iran, earlier this year cannot be underestimated. Without a doubt, the historic steps taken by China greatly influenced US President Joe Biden and his administration. In fact, this opening was a challenge for Biden.

The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran marginalized the United States diplomatically in the Middle East. It thwarted many of the goals that the US sought to achieve regionally, including isolating Iran and normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Despite Washington’s discomfort, China positioned itself as a significant player and power broker in the Middle East by taking on the role of mediator.

The US is attempting to conceal its discomfort with the normalization of relations among regional states, the changing strategic landscape, and the emergence of a new game planner. The Biden administration is currently focused on reengaging in the Middle East and bringing China’s influence under control.

President Joe Biden acknowledged efforts to initiate diplomatic talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Biden’s plan came to light in an interview he gave to The New York Times in the past weeks. According to Thomas Friedman, who conducted the interview, the Biden administration plans to establish a “Big Middle East Deal.”

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Illustration by Akshita Chandra/The New York Times

The forthcoming agreement includes Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel in exchange for a mutual security pact with the US, Riyadh providing aid to Palestinians in the West Bank, and making concessions in its relationship with China.

The perspective from Israel’s side regarding this agreement is crucial as well. Israel will commit to not annexing the West Bank, ending the expansion and colonization of settlements there, and reviving the two-state solution. In return, it’s anticipated that the Palestinian Authority will support the Saudi-Israeli peace deal.

A high-level US delegation’s visit to Saudi Arabia to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman indicates American officials’ interest in such a deal. The White House reports that regional normalization was discussed during the meetings held between Saudi leaders, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk on July 27.

Biden is negotiating extensively for a new Middle East order that excludes Turkey. Although it’s still early in the process, these talks foreshadow significant changes in the region. Turkey’s role as a major player is being replaced by Saudi Arabia. Erdogan’s unstable and ineffective foreign policy has rendered Turkey irrelevant. Additionally, due to a lack of confidence in Israel’s fluctuating policies, Saudi Arabia has been chosen for a key role.

The White House has long sought to normalize Saudi-Israeli relations. Steps were already taken in 2020 with the “Abraham Accords” that established relations between Israel and some Arab states.

Riyadh leveraged these rapprochements to its advantage, engaging in rigorous negotiations. It signed defense agreements with the US, pressed for civilian nuclear agreements, missile defense systems, and the supply of advanced weaponry. It demanded substantial concessions from Israel to Palestinians.

The Saudi-Iran rapprochement further bolstered Saudi Arabia’s bargaining power, underscoring the importance of diplomatic efforts by the US to reestablish its regional influence. If the timing of these efforts coincides with the shadow of the upcoming US elections, China’s influence in the region might become more dominant. Should these efforts falter as election season heats up toward the end of the year, China might declare a significant victory in the region.

Such a complex agreement will require lengthy and arduous negotiations. Biden’s pre-election move is seen as a belated step. Furthermore, even if an agreement is reached, doubts remain about its sustainability if Biden is not reelected.

America aims to reassert its dominance in the region, counter China’s diplomatic and economic gains, and reorganize regional relations to serve US and Israeli interests. This will provide some relief to Palestinians in the West Bank. Even if Israel secures better terms through these negotiations, it will enhance the US’s reputation and image in Arab and other Muslim countries.

Given the challenges encountered in complex US-Saudi-Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the chances of diplomatic success are slim. However, like politics, diplomacy is an art of possibilities. If diplomacy succeeds in a period when doubts about America’s reliability in the region persist, it will demonstrate its effectiveness.

Recently, Washington announced new military deployments in the Middle East. It aims to reestablish its credibility by demonstrating seriousness in reengagement. Given the impending US presidential election, there are concerns that these efforts might come to naught. Troubled relations between the Biden administration and the Saudi and Israeli governments might lead them to wait for the outcome of the US presidential race before reaching any agreements.

Israel’s National Security Advisor suggests that the road to such an agreement is “very long,” and right-wing ministers express their opposition to any concessions to Palestinians. Ahead lies the US Congress, where Republicans may not be inclined toward a defense agreement with Riyadh, and Democrats may be unwilling to accept an agreement that doesn’t guarantee a two-state solution and adequately protect Palestinian rights.

Foreign policy experts and former US officials consider the notion of a “big bargain” as a distant possibility. Progress in these negotiations around the table will necessitate substantial and politically challenging concessions from Saudis, Israelis, and Palestinians alike. In these heated days of discussing diplomacy in the Middle East, it’s regrettable that there is a lack of those who are designing Turkey’s new foreign policy.

Yuksel Durgut is journalist, foreign policy expert and columnist for TR724.com.

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