Saudi sights

Sen. Graham sees ‘window of opportunity’ for U.S.-mediated normalization between Israel-Saudi Arabia

'This opportunity is not unlimited, if we do not do it in 2023 or early 2024, the window of opportunity may close,’ the South Carolina senator says of the possibility that Saudi Arabia could join the Abraham Accords

Amos Ben-Gershom (GPO)

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on April 17, 2023

In a round of shuttle diplomacy between Washington, Riyadh and Jerusalem this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) relayed messages to Israeli leaders from Washington and Riyadh on his — and the Biden administration’s — efforts to bring Saudi Arabia into the 2020 Abraham Accords.

“Saudi Arabia is ready to move forward with Israel, if they can get a relationship with us,” Graham, who traveled to Jerusalem after visiting Saudi Arabia and holding meetings with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week, told journalists at a press conference at the King David Hotel on Monday. Graham had met earlier with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli opposition leaders, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid and former Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

“They [the Saudis] asked the question of whether Israel is capable of doing this,” Graham continued. “I told them that I had a lot of confidence in the Israeli political system, but I will say that this opportunity is not unlimited, that if we do not do it in 2023 or early 2024, the window of opportunity may close.”

Graham said he had been encouraged to travel to the Middle East by the White House, with the goal of “upgrading the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States,” which, in turn, would help to normalize ties between Israelis and Saudis – an ultimate foreign policy goal that Netanyahu has set himself since returning to office in January.

“I told [National Security Advisor Jake] Sullivan, [Special Envoy to Counter ISIL Brett] McGurk, and the Biden administration, that I would like to be helpful as a Republican to try to normalize relationships between Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel,” Graham explained, adding, “If this could happen, it would be the biggest change in my lifetime in the Middle East. It would bring about stability in a troubled region.”

He said that if President Joe Biden pushed  for normalization with Saudi Arabia, despite frosty relations up until now, “it would be easier for Democrats to vote for that concept.” 

Graham, who also previously took a tough approach to rebuilding ties with the House of Saud, said that he now believed bin Salman’s efforts to make real changes and to modernize his country were genuine. Sending a bipartisan message to the Middle East’s largest country was essential, Graham said, to repair ties.

“This ambition, and this vision of the crown prince to invest a trillion dollars and upgrade his economy over the next decade will only pay off if people throughout the world, particularly the West, see Saudi Arabia as a new and different country,” observed Graham. “I told him unequivocally, one of the best things you can do to change the image of Saudi Arabia is to normalize a relationship with Israel, that would be the ultimate game changer.”

“It would be monumental in terms of the region to have the largest, most consequential force in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia, recognize the one and only Jewish state, in partnership with the United States,” he emphasized. “This is something worth pursuing, and I stand ready to help President Biden in any way I can.”

Graham said that for the U.S., forging a new path with Saudi Arabia would likely involve a new defense pact and a free- trade agreement, which might be challenged in Congress. The Saudis are also seeking the green light to move ahead with their plan to produce nuclear power, which would obviously raise concerns in Israel.

The South Carolina senator said he believed that Saudi Arabia’s goals for a nuclear program were “peaceful,” in contrast to Iran. Graham said he believed that recent steps by the Saudis to repair its relationship with Tehran, which has been strained over Iran’s nuclear program and the on-going war in Yemen, were just efforts “to calm the waters” in the region.

However, Graham expressed serious concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, saying that if it was successful “it’d be one of the most destabilizing things in the world,” and would likely spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. He also warned that the Saudi crown prince told him that the kingdom would pursue a nuclear weapon if Iran obtains one.

“I will be going back to Washington, with great concern about the status of the Iranian nuclear program,” Graham said, adding, “Israel is eventually going to have to take decisive action if things do not change.”

In his meetings with Israeli leaders, Graham said he emphasized that normalizing ties with Saudi Arabia was still possible but that it had to be achieved as soon as possible, despite the ongoing unrest in the country over the Netanyahu’s government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary.

“I had a very constructive conversation with the leadership on every aspect of political life,” said Graham, reluctant to express an opinion on recent political events in Israel.

“The reason I came here is because the Democratic administration is soliciting my help to close a deal with Saudi Arabia that will be beneficial to Israel,” he said. “Gantz, Lapid and Bibi all said, ‘If you can pull this off, count us in.’ I think what you will find is that if the United States can upgrade the relationship with Saudi Arabia, then you’ll have every corner of Israeli politics supporting it.”

“We want normalization and peace with Saudi Arabia,” Netanyahu wrote in a statement following his meeting with Graham on Monday. “We view that as perhaps a giant leap towards ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

The statement continued: “This agreement could have monumental consequences, historic consequences both for Israel, for Saudi Arabia, for the region and for the world and we welcome, obviously, the American participation by President Biden, by support from both sides of the aisle in Congress.”

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