Israel-Hamas war: It’s not too late to salvage peace with Saudi Arabia – opinion

Alongside the human toll exacted in Hamas’s devastating October 7 attack lies another casualty – the US-led effort to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Just days before the attack – with the kingdom’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, clearly in his sights – Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned that “governments which prioritize the gamble of normalization with the Zionist regime will incur losses.” He meant it.

For Khamenei and Iran’s terrorist proxies, the prospect of peace between the world’s only Jewish state and Saudi Arabia, the world’s most influential Muslim state, posed a mortal danger to the project that stands at the heart of their ideology: destroying Israel. When MBS declared to Fox News last month that “every day we get closer” to normalization, it triggered a five-alarm fire across the rejectionist camp. Hamas’s pogrom, the result of arming, financing, and training by Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, was tailor-made to disrupt the process.

Hamas and Iran disrupted Israeli-Saudi normalization, but it can be salvaged

The bad news: For now, they’ve succeeded. The good news: Normalization can be salvaged. The temporary disruption of the peace train doesn’t have to mean permanent derailment. But getting back on track will require concerted leadership from President Joe Biden – both to ensure that Hamas and its Iranian sponsors incur a devastating defeat for the war they initiated and to help steel MBS to resume the diplomacy that can deliver the coup de grace to Iran’s eliminationist raison d’etre.

Prior to October 7, MBS thought he was moving into alignment with an Israel whose deterrent power was overwhelming and whose military was the most competent in the Middle East. Hamas’s slaughter blasted a hole in that assumption. Instead, it’s the kingdom’s most dangerous foe, Iran and its terrorist allies, that appear ascendant and capable of inflicting massive harm on all those who defy them.

Politically, Hamas’s attack has exponentially raised the costs to MBS of any rapid move toward Israel. Making peace posed real risks for the Saudi leader even under conditions of relative regional calm. He has been telling foreign visitors for a year that he fully expected a violent backlash from extremists within the kingdom and Iran, and he thought he could offset those dangers through compensating US security guarantees.

But making peace in the middle of a war – with Israeli retaliation against Hamas (per Iran’s playbook) inevitably leading to large-scale Palestinian suffering certain to inflame the broader Saudi public and populations across the Islamic world – is an entirely different matter. It’s a bridge too far even for a leader as bold as MBS, who is convinced that full relations with Israel would serve Saudi Arabia’s long-term interests.

Amid such enormous uncertainty and increased threat, MBS quite predictably has opted to hit the pause button on normalization. Right now, he’s looking for cover, hedging, and waiting to see how the violent events of the coming weeks play out.

Whether MBS’s pause turns into long-term postponement now depends critically on two things. The first is the degree of Israel’s success in reestablishing its deterrent power by crushing Hamas’s military capabilities in Gaza while limiting, to the extent possible, the impact on Palestinian civilians. When the dust finally settles, what needs to be clear is that Hamas’s so-called victory of October 7 was at best short-lived and Pyrrhic, ultimately resulting in a devastating defeat for both the terror group and its Iranian sponsors.

Specifically, MBS must come away reassured that his original thesis for normalization – one based on a combination of overwhelming Israeli power and American security guarantees – remains the best bet for securing the kingdom’s future stability and prosperity. Achieving that outcome depends first and foremost on Israel, of course. But it won’t happen without the kind of unequivocal US backing that Biden has superbly provided since the crisis erupted. Now that support needs to be sustained through the difficult days to come, when much of the rest of the world is tempted to go wobbly as Israel does what is necessary to eliminate a genuinely genocidal threat.

The second thing that will be required to salvage Israel-Saudi normalization is for Biden to dispense with whatever residual qualms he has about the darker episodes in MBS’s record by doubling down on his own personal engagement with the Saudi leader. Importantly, Biden at last spoke directly with Prince Mohammed this week, more than two weeks after the crisis erupted. Much more such contact will be necessary to keep the hopes for normalization.

MBS may be a visionary, but he’s also young, mercurial, and prone to making rash decisions. He’s now in the eye of an unprecedented regional whirlwind. What he needs is the steady hand, cool head, and counsel of the most powerful man on earth about the priority of the US-Saudi relationship and the importance of denying Iran the triumph it seeks by torpedoing the opportunity for peace. Biden is perfectly positioned, through both temperament and experience, to play that mentoring role. But it will take finally embracing MBS, warts and all, as his full partner in making history and changing the Middle East for the better.

John Hannah, the Randi and Charles Wax senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), served as national security adviser to former US vice president Dick Cheney. Blaise Misztal is vice president for policy at JINSA.

Originally Published in Jerusalem Post.