President Biden’s envoys are pushing ahead with their effort to realign Middle East politics by brokering the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel despite significant concessions demanded by the Saudi monarchy.
Mr. Biden sent Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, back to Saudi Arabia in recent days, his second trip there in less than three months, as U.S. officials test the ground for an agreement bringing together two historic adversaries and fundamentally reshaping the region.
No breakthrough was announced, but the fact that Mr. Sullivan returned to the kingdom so soon after his last trip in May suggests that the Biden administration sees serious prospects for an accord. Among the hurdles has been Saudi Arabia’s insistence on a mutual security pact with the United States and development of a civilian nuclear program in which the country could enrich its own uranium, both nonstarters in the past.
A summary of the meeting in a White House statement gave little indication of how much progress was made during the visit. Mr. Sullivan traveled to Jeddah, the statement said, “to discuss bilateral and regional matters, including initiatives to advance a common vision for a more peaceful, secure, prosperous, and stable Middle East region interconnected with the world.”
U.S. officials came back from the trip privately reporting that the engagements went well and expressing cautious optimism that progress could be made as diplomats on the ground continue talking.
The Biden administration has also sought to draw Saudi Arabia away from its collaboration with Russia on energy prices to increase the pressure on Moscow as it wages war in Ukraine.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday that Saudi leaders will convene peace talks on Aug. 5 and 6 involving representatives from Ukraine and dozens of other countries including India and Brazil, which like Saudi Arabia have not joined Western efforts to isolate Russia over its invasion. Russia, which has refused to negotiate, is not included in the meeting. The Journal said Mr. Sullivan was expected to participate, but the National Security Council would not comment on Saturday.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to host such a meeting highlights a cascade of complicated and sometimes clashing dynamics. Washington wants to enlist Riyadh against the Russians, prevent it from growing closer to China, bring it together with Israel, coordinate with it against Iran, persuade it to finally put an end to the war in next-door Yemen and keep it from raising the price of gasoline at the pumps heading into an election year.
In a conversation last week with Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist, Mr. Biden described a possible deal with many moving parts, any of which could easily trip up such a complicated negotiation but would have far-reaching implications if they were realized.
Saudi demands for normalization with Israel have been expansive. Among other things, they want a NATO-level alliance with the United States in which an attack on one is an attack on all, long a taboo among American policymakers who do not want to be committed to coming to the defense of a nondemocratic monarchy in case of war.
The Saudis also want access to sophisticated American weapons, including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antiballistic missile defense system, known as THAAD. And they want Israel to take steps to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution to resolve the long-running conflict with the Palestinians, if for no other reason to show their public that they have not abandoned fellow Arabs.
The American side is pushing the Saudis to ensure a permanent end to the fighting in Yemen, cementing a temporary cease-fire that took hold last year; to provide extensive new aid to Palestinian institutions in the West Bank; and to curb its newfound relationship with China, which last year played host to talks that restored diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
It was not entirely clear what conditions to which Israel would have to agree, but after his conversation with the president, Mr. Friedman floated ideas like a permanent commitment not to annex the West Bank as well as limits on future settlements. The negotiations come at a time of friction between the United States and Israel as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushes through legislation to curb judicial authority in defiance of Mr. Biden and hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets.
Formal diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be a major victory for Mr. Netanyahu in his long-running efforts to normalize his country’s position in a neighborhood that has been hostile for most of Israel’s 75-year history. The Abraham Accords brokered under the auspices of President Donald J. Trump’s administration in 2020 opened the door to a transformed region when the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco agreed to open formal relations with Israel.
Saudi Arabia resisted joining the accords at the time and has been the big prize ever since. The Saudis and Israelis have grown informally closer over the years out of shared fears about Iran’s role in the region, and incremental changes have demonstrated their evolving ties, such as Saudi permission for flights heading to and from Israel to cross the kingdom’s airspace.
While the Biden administration initially had not been especially optimistic about the chances of negotiating a Saudi-Israeli rapprochement, during Mr. Sullivan’s visit in May, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the prime minister and de facto ruler of the kingdom, expressed more willingness to make a deal and Mr. Biden decided to make a full-bore effort. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken made a trip to Saudi Arabia in June, followed by Mr. Sullivan’s return.
During his visit to Jeddah on Thursday, Mr. Sullivan was joined by Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator of Middle East policy, who has strong relations with the Saudis, and Amos J. Hochstein, an energy and investment adviser to the president with a long history in the region as well.
They met with Prince Mohammed and other Saudi officials. Prince Mohammed was deemed by the C.I.A. to be responsible for the Saudi operation that killed and dismembered Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post and Virginia resident, in 2018. (Prince Mohammed has denied any role in what he described as a rogue operation.)
But Mr. Biden has long since set aside his 2020 campaign pledge to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the brutal murder and his vow last year to impose “consequences” on the kingdom for cutting oil production while gas prices were on the rise in America. Instead, he has concluded that strong ties with the energy power are too important to jeopardize, with the Iranian threat looming and China increasing its influence in the Middle East.