Why Would Joe Biden Reward Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed Bin Salman?
Our Zoom call this week, for paid subscribers, will be at our regular time: Friday at Noon EDT.
Our guest will be Martin Indyk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former US ambassador to Israel. Indyk recently suggested that the US reconsider military aid to Israel. He’s also criticized proposals that the US abandon the two-state solution.
As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Omar Barghouti, Maggie Haberman, Noam Chomsky, and Bret Stephens.
Sources Cited in this Video
Thomas Friedman’s column about Joe Biden’s effort to broker diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Things to Read
On Mehdi Hasan’s show on MSNBC, I talked about the protest movement in Israel.
On August 29 on Zoom, I’ll be talking about Palestinian refugee return and the Jewish concept of Teshuvah.
Daniel Kurtzer and Dennis Ross debate US military aid to Israel.
I’m grateful to subscriber Paul Reichardt for alerting me to this 2020 Haaretz study of the snipers who shot Palestinians during Gaza’s Great March of Return. The story probes the psychology of young men whose identity has become intertwined with their ability to efficiently inflict violence on people they’ve never met. Although proximately about Israeli soldiers, it’s also about war itself. Here’s a sample:
“For a soldier like that, that shot is his purpose, his self-definition. These are kids of 18, mostly from a pretty poor socioeconomic background. The fact that you put them through a sniper’s course doesn’t mean you turned them into mature, sensible people. On the contrary, you turned them into a machine, you made them think small, you reduced their possibilities of choice, diminished their humanity and their personality. The moment you turn someone into a sniper – that is his essence.”
In my last newsletter, I suggested that progressive Jews might learn from the Chassidic group, Lubavitch-Chabad, whose outreach efforts embody the principle of ahavat chinam (baseless love) toward fellow Jews. Leah Cohen wrote this thoughtful critique, which she gave me permission to publish:
“As the product of a mixed marriage, I had the experience of being routinely dismissed by the Lubavitchers who’d come to my college campus. Inevitably, the instant I answered their inquiries about whether my mother was Jewish (no), they would flick their eyes away and behave as if I were invisible…do you see anything worrisome about encouraging Jews to practice ahavat chinam especially toward other Jews? Might it be equally effective, and ultimately perhaps speak to a higher vision of love and fellowship, to frame it not as a special love we must feel, but as a special obligation we must bear that makes it important for Jews to remain in compassionate dialogue with other Jews? I’m thinking of how white people might be said to bear a special obligation to remain in compassionate dialogue with other white people around undoing racism – not out of a presumption of higher degree of love we ought to feel for other white people, but out of an awareness of responsibility tied to our spheres of influence and positionality.”
See you on Friday,
Hi. Our call this Friday is going to be with Martin Indyk. I’m sure many of you know who Martin Indyk is. He’s a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He’s a former US ambassador to Israel. He’s been deeply involved for decades—one of the most prominent Americans involved in negotiations between Israel and Palestinians. He’s recently made news for having suggested that it might be worth considering conditioning, or even reducing or eliminating, US military aid to Israel, which I think is a sign of a pretty significant shift that’s taking place in kind of establishment foreign policy circles. But he remains a supporter of the two-state solution and an opponent of the idea that we should see Israel-Palestine as one integrated political unit. So, there’s a lot to talk about with Martin Indyk. That’ll be this Friday at noon ET, as usual. It’s for paid subscribers and, as always, paid subscribers also get access to our library of past interviews with people like Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Omar Barghouti, Bret Stephens, and many others.
I wanted to say something about the talk that the Biden administration is seriously investing in trying to bring about an Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement. I want to try to explain why I think this is an insane idea, and then say something about what it is about the climate of Washington today that makes an idea like this—that I think is insane—seem like potentially a good idea. So first, why is this insane? First of all, because helping to broker an Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement means giving huge political gifts to two leaders that the Biden administration has rightly been trying to treat as something like pariahs. The Biden administration has not invited Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House for a very good reason. Netanyahu is an avowed opponent of giving Palestinians basic rights. He’s brought the crudest form of racists into his government. And he’s also trying to undermine the power of the Israeli judiciary so Israel stops being even a robust liberal democracy for Jews.
So, why would the Biden administration want to give a huge political boost to Netanyahu and to a government that includes people like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, right? That should be, it seems to me, pretty obvious. And brokering a Saudi-Israeli normalization agreement would be a huge political boost to Netanyahu and his government. It would also be a huge political boost to Mohammed bin Salman, someone whose hand Joe Biden would not shake, someone he said should be treated as a pariah during the campaign because MBS had—in addition to imprisoning many of his political opponents—also had ordered, according to US intelligence, the murder of an American journalist who wrote for The Washington Post.
So, you’re gonna take these two leaders and give them a huge political win. It’s easy to see why Netanyahu might want normalization with Saudi Arabia. It means that, essentially, that the pressure from the Arab world for Israel to do anything other than maintain its undemocratic oppression over Palestinians lessens even more. And it’s easy to see why Mohammed bin Salman would want it because it includes huge payoffs from the United States. The payoff for entering this normalization, according to the reports, would be US support for a Saudi nuclear program, increased US military assistance to Saudi Arabia of the kind of the highest kind, and also some kind of US guarantee to come to Saudi’s defense if it were in some kind of military conflict.
It’s crazy to think that giving the Saudis these things is in the US national interest. After what Mohammed bin Salman did with US weaponry in Yemen, you want to give him more? You think that, for a man like this, it would be a good idea for the US to help make it easier for him to have a civilian nuclear program that he could easily then probably divert towards a military nuclear program? A nuclear Saudi Arabia would be a good idea, given we don’t even know—not just Mohammed bin Salman—what could happen after Mohammed bin Salman in that country? And, in addition, this for the Biden administration that was trying to kind of end US endless wars, the idea that you want to make essentially a military guarantee that US troops would have to go to defend Saudi Arabia if Mohammed bin Salman got into some kind of crazy military conflict with Yemen, or Qatar, or Iran, or who knows what? On its face, these things are lunatic, it seems to me. The fig leaf—supposedly, again, at least to describe what Thomas Friedman said—would be something for the Palestinians. What for the Palestinians? Well, what Friedman suggests is maybe there wouldn’t be any more settlement growth. There would be a promise not to annex the West Bank. And maybe there would be some kind of big payoff to the Palestinian Authority from the Saudis or others in the Gulf.
This is, with all due respect, a joke. Even if the Israeli government announced that it was halting settlement growth—which I think is very difficult to imagine it doing, given that it’s a government which is in many ways dominated by settlers and people deeply supportive of the settlement project—there is no reason at all to believe the Israeli government would abide by that. Benjamin Netanyahu is a notorious liar, right? It’s one of the things he’s most famous for, is being a liar. His government is deeply invested in the settlement project. So, even if you could get the Israelis to make some statement about how they were restraining settlement growth, there is absolutely zero reason to believe that the machinery of the state, with people like Smotrich and Ben-Gvir and others in positions of power, would stop that settlement growth for even a moment.
And the idea that America’s commitments to the supposed two-state solution are now so diminished that we’re not even asking Israel to create a Palestinian state, or to say that it supports a Palestinian state near the ‘67 lines, but just to claim that it’s going to stop settlement—when we know it’s actually not gonna stop settlement growth. To say it’s not going to annex the West Bank, when de facto Israel has already annexed the West Bank. That’s one of the things that people who spend time on the ground say again and again that de facto Israel has already annexed the West Bank. So, saying it won’t annex the West Bank kind of in some official statement is also meaningless. And some payoff for the Palestinian Authority? Great, so it can be a more brutal and effective subcontractor of Israel’s apartheid control in the West Bank? The idea that this agreement would do anything for the Palestinians, it seems to me, is something that is very, very hard to take seriously.
So, it raises the question: why is the Biden administration so invested in it? Now, one answer might be that, going into the 2024 election, it feels like it would be beneficial for Jewish voters or Jewish donors to show that, although Trump had the Abraham Accords, that Biden has topped that by normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. I’m actually dubious that that’s the real motivation. First of all, anyone who knows anything about Jewish voting behavior in the United States knows that the vast majority of American Jews do not vote on Israel. Only a small percentage of American Jews vote on Israel. And those folks generally vote Republican. The vast majority of American Jews will stay in the Democratic Party overwhelmingly because they don’t like Donald Trump. They support abortion rights. The entire Republican agenda essentially on cultural issues is deeply anathema to them. You don’t need a Saudi normalization deal to keep Jews in the Democratic column, nor frankly do I think you need it to keep Democratic Jewish donors in the Democratic column. Just running against Donald Trump is plenty. So, I don’t really buy that, frankly, as the reason that the Biden administration seems so interested.
It seems to me much more plausible that their real motivation is they feel like this is the way to keep Saudi Arabia in the US camp rather than the China camp. One of the things that has really become clear in the Biden administration is that it sees the world fundamentally through a cold war prism. The most important thing it wants to know about any government around the world is: are they on our side, or are they on the Russian/Chinese side? And if you’re on the US side, the US will overlook horrifying human rights abuses, as in the case of India’s Narendra Modi and give you a state dinner, or fetch you like Giorgia Meloni. Remember, Giorgia Meloni, who comes from this party with fascist roots in Italy, the Biden administration’s view seems to be, ‘she’s not so bad.’ Why is she not so bad? Is it because she’s changed her position on immigrants? Is this because she’s not demonizing LGBT people or Muslim people in Italy? No, that’s not the reason she’s not so bad. The reason she’s not so bad is it turns out she’s been pretty hawkish on Ukraine. So, once she allied with the US against Russia on Ukraine, all else is forgiven. That is the basic orientation of this administration. It’s really, honestly, it sometimes feels like this administration is being run by John Foster Dulles. It’s a throwback to the way the US approached things at the height of the last cold war, which had terrible repercussions for America’s position on human rights.
And so, then what you see about MBS, what matters about him is not what he’s doing in terms of human rights in Saudi Arabia, not what he did to Jamal Khashoggi, not what he did in Yemen, none of these things. The key point is: is he going to use Western 5G, or is he going to use Chinese Huawei? Is he gonna do a high-tech trade with China, or not? And so, it seems to me the idea is that you have to give him a huge gift basket in order to keep him on America’s side in the cold war. And once you see things from this like 100,000 feet-global-cold-war-geopolitical-perspective—what this actually means for ordinary Saudis, for ordinary Palestinians, even for the Americans who will now be on the hook to defend Saudi Arabia, or what it’s gonna mean down the line if Saudi Arabia has a military nuclear program—all that pales in comparison to say, ‘great, we can now say that we’ve moved Saudi Arabia on this global checkerboard from their side to our side’ because MBS has been basically threatening that he’s going to be closer and closer to China.
I think this is a way of making American foreign policy that in the past has proved deeply destructive. I also just think it’s foolish to think that, even if America does give Mohammed bin Salman all of these goodies, that it will keep him on America’s side. Again, through what enforcement mechanism would America have? The Saudis have huge economic incentives to be deeply interconnected with China, as just almost every country in the world. Mohammed bin Salman is not going to forego those opportunities. And after we give him all these things, what exactly is stopping him from doing what I think is in his self-interest, which is trying to continue to play the US on China off against each other so he can have the maximum influence over both and get the maximum benefit from both? I don’t see any realistic reason to believe that Mohammed bin Salman is going to shut him off from economic and technological and even geopolitical relationships with the Chinese just because we give him this huge basket of gifts and then, you know, make him sprout some line about how he’s on America’s side.
So, I think that this normalization deal is yet another example of a kind of a cold war perspective that is leading America to do things that are bad for ordinary people in regions of the world that we see only as pawns in a larger cold war geopolitical game, and also puts us in this subservient position towards leaders that we don’t have to be subservient to. That we can stand up for American national interests and stand up for the idea that we have some concern about human rights. But all of that gets denigrated when you’re so petrified that a country might be on China’s side that you basically do whatever it takes to keep them on America’s side, supposedly, no matter how much they violate America’s values, and even indeed America’s interests. Again, on Friday, we’re going to be talking to Martin Indyk. I hope many of you will join us.