on the hill

Saudi normalization, Israeli-Palestinian relations focus of Abraham Accords hearing

The hearing came hours after a report that Saudi Arabia had offered preconditions for normalization with Israel relating to nuclear power and security


Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House on Sept. 15, 2020.

Efforts to facilitate the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and strategies for using the Abraham Accords to facilitate progress toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians took center stage at a House hearing focused on expanding the Abraham Accords on Thursday.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia Subcommittee heard testimony yesterday from Abraham Accords Peace Institute President Rob Greenway, former Central Command commander Gen. Joseph Votel and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Atlantic Council distinguished fellow Daniel Shapiro.

Hours before the hearing, The Wall Street Journal released a report that Saudi Arabia had asked for U.S. security guarantees, decreased restrictions on arms sales and assistance in developing its civilian nuclear program as specific preconditions for normalization with Israel.

Shapiro said that, while Saudi-Israeli normalization is in the U.S. interest, he would “caution against the narrative that Saudi Arabia is ready to normalize relations with Israel tomorrow” if the U.S. fulfills the conditions laid out in the WSJ article. 

He argued that Saudi-Israel normalization “cannot be divorced from the U.S.-Saudi relationship” and other U.S. interests. He added that the U.S. would likely seek its own concessions from Saudi Arabia, such commitments to stable oil markets and cooperation on Russia and China issues, in the event of such an agreement.

Greenway likewise said that he concluded, while working on the National Security Council during the Trump administration, that “this was really about the Riyadh-Washington relationship and has a lot less to do with the relationship with Israel.” Public discussion of normalization, he added “usually becomes detrimental.”

“I do think that we’d have to repair the relationship and build on a sounder footing in order to proceed,” he said.

Oman, Mauritania, Qatar, Kuwait, Indonesia, Somalia, Niger and Malaysia were floated as other possible focuses for future normalization.

In his questioning, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) expressed particular concern about the Saudi nuclear program, warning that “just because the Saudis are not Shiites does not mean that they are Zionists” and that Saudi nuclear developments could ultimately fall into the hands of bad actors if the Saudi government were to fall. He also said that Saudi Arabia appeared reluctant to accept nuclear safeguard measures.

Greenway predicted that Saudi Arabia would agree to a nuclear safeguard regime similar to the one in place in the United Arab Emirates, as long as the U.S. “did not enable a wholesale civil and military nuclear program in Iran.” Shapiro noted that negotiating and implementing such a safeguard regime in the UAE took significant time and effort.

Difficulties in securing Saudi normalization with Israel are also intimately tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the panelists said.

“The Palestinian situation still does resonate in many of these countries,” Votel said. “This is a particular challenge in Saudi Arabia, I believe, because of their role as the custodian of the holy sites. And so this is more delicate for them. And as a result, it will take more time and more effort to work through that particular issue with the Saudis.”

As part of a potential U.S.-brokered Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, Shapiro predicted that Saudi Arabia could also seek concessions from Israel related to the Palestinians, that Israel might seek greater U.S. security assistance and that the U.S. might seek Israeli steps to preserve the viability of a two-state solution.

More broadly, Votel noted that “resolving the Palestinian situation remains essential for many in the region.”

Shapiro said that heightened tensions and further moves away from a two-state solution “will make it harder to achieve the goal we’re all here to discuss,” as well as potentially dampen support for the Accords in existing member states.

Shapiro said the UAE in particular “is struggling” to navigate the recent flareup in Israeli-Palestinian violence, having pushed measures critical of Israel as a member of the U.N. Security Council, and not being “as consistently critical as I think they should” of Palestinian terror attacks and Palestinian Authority payments to terrorists’ families. 

“There is an opportunity to draw positive energy from the Abraham Accords into the deeply deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian arena,” Shapiro said. “No other regional development holds better prospects of breaking down Palestinian resistance to normalization with Israel, or Israeli resistance to including Palestinians in the promise of a better region. Arab states as partners to both are uniquely positioned to positively influence the decisions and actions of both sides in ways that can improve conditions on the ground and keep a two-state solution alive.”

Particularly among Palestinian young people and businesspeople, Shapiro argued, the Accords provide opportunities for Arab states to bring together Israelis and Palestinians on a people-to-people level and promote the idea among Palestinians that cooperation with Israel will be beneficial to them, through mutually beneficial projects that address economic, energy and security concerns.

Votel said that, as the Abraham Accords mature, he anticipates further opportunities for “trustful communication between the partners,” adding that “continuing to invest” in the agreements “does provide a good platform for addressing really sensitive issues like that.”

Greenway noted that the Accords provide opportunities for its signatories to contribute to infrastructure in the Palestinian territories in ways acceptable to both parties, and said there is “ample opportunity for that to continue to occur while we’re waiting for the resolution of a more difficult political question.”

He also emphasized the importance of ensuring close U.S.-Israeli ties to expanding normalization.

“[The Arab states] can’t be more pro-Israel than we are,” he said. “That doesn’t mean unequivocal or without conditions, it does mean if there’s daylight between [the U.S. and Israel], there’ll be huge daylight between their capitals.”

Shared regional concerns about Iran were also on the agenda for Thursday’s hearing.

Votel warned that Iran’s nuclear program and malign activities “will continue to frustrate our efforts” toward normalization “and pose real challenges and threats against our interests.”

On the flip side, Greenway said that “the right approach on Tehran, as the agreed upon principal threat to peace and stability in the region would go a long way” toward supporting Arab-Israeli peace.

“What happens in the Israel-Palestine conflict matters to [Arab states], but not nearly to the point in which the immediate threat to their very survival coming from Tehran today is and the desperate need for US leadership in the response to that threat,” he said. “It’s an opportunity then for us, I think, to stake a claim in partnership with our allies in the region. And that would allow us to convene from a position of strength.”

Shapiro, who served for a time with the Biden administration’s team negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, said he views a nuclear deal as moribund. He said the U.S. needs to work to develop a “unified U.S. and regional policy to deal with Iran” in its stead.

“Things that were possible or necessary in order to do [the deal], I don’t think are possible anymore, in light of Iranian oppression of its own people in the protests and arming of Russia in the war in Ukraine,” he said. “I don’t think it’s even an option at this point.”

Panelists offered a range of other proposals for further developing and cementing the Accords.

Greenway proposed the establishment of an Abraham Accords free-trade area and new overland trade routes connecting the Mediterranean and the Gulf; the creation of a fund to combat poverty and improve health, education and infrastructure; the establishment of a regional security architecture; and regional cooperation to offset European energy shortages brought about by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

He later noted that a U.S. failure to engage in the region will open opportunities for China.

Shapiro urged the creation of both a U.S.-led defense cooperative and a regionally led cooperative organization akin to the European Union or Association of Southeast Asian Nations that can facilitate multilateral cooperation “at every level in every area of governance,” potentially including a free trade zone. Such an organization, he said, would incentivize new members to join the Abraham Accords and could act “in parallel” with the Negev Forum.

Shapiro also threw his support behind recent legislation creating a dedicated Abraham Accords special envoy post.

“Having a focal point for organizing all of that effort, and even the effort of external non-government entities that want to contribute, I think is made easier when you have that sort of focal point,” he said. Internationally, “it demonstrates a very significant commitment that gets the attention of our foreign partners.”

Panelists offered specific praise for the efforts of lawmakers to advance the Abraham Accords, and the Abraham Accords caucuses in the House and Senate in particular.

“Every member of Congress sits on a committee and has oversight over his jurisdiction over a department that could be encouraged — maybe even more than encouraged and then funded to participate in this,” Shapiro said. “This whole of government approach, I think, would be the right way to think about how the Congress can make its biggest contribution.”

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