Saudi sights

Schneider expresses optimism about prospects for Saudi-Israel normalization, but arms sales a potential hurdle

The Abraham Accords Caucus co-chair said, ‘we also have to weigh that against the risks and the costs’ associated with potentially expanded arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) participates in the House Ways and Means Committee organizing meeting in the Longworth House Office Building on Tuesday, January 31, 2023.

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), a co-chair of the congressional Abraham Accords Caucus, expressed enthusiasm to Jewish Insider on Wednesday about a new report that the administration is hoping to finalize a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia by the end of the year. But he cautioned that lawmakers will have to weigh the benefits of any agreement with the potential costs associated with Saudi demands for expanded sales of advanced weapons.

Axios reported on Wednesday that the Biden administration hopes to close a normalization deal by the end of the year. Lawmakers who’ve traveled to the region recently have offered differing accounts of how realistic a peace deal is in the short term. Some have told JI that it could be imminent, while others have said that significant obstacles remain.

“I commend the administration for working to make it happen. We’ve been talking about trying to bring the Saudis into the Accords since they were signed nearly three years ago,” Schneider said. “So I think this is a reflection of the administration’s commitment to expanding the Abraham Accords and working to pursue peace and prosperity for the region.”

Reported Saudi demands for increased security cooperation and advanced arms sales from the U.S. are likely to raise concerns, particularly among influential congressional Democrats. 

Lawmakers, including Schneider, voted on a bipartisan basis in 2019 to block U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Although the Trump administration vetoed that measure, concern (particularly among Democrats) over arms sales to the kingdom has continued. Top lawmakers have occasionally threatened over recent years to end all arms sales to the kingdom.

“The prospect of a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia holds huge promise. It’s incredibly exciting, if it actually comes to fruition. But we also have to weigh that against the risks and the costs,” Schneider said, when asked about the arms sales issue. “We will look at what it takes to get the parties to the table, what it might take from us engaging and providing help to cross that finish line.”

The Illinois congressman said he would not “prejudge” an agreement, and would evaluate any deal that emerges on its merits, “but I’m not going to jump the other way and say whatever we do is fine.”

“We have to make sure that it serves our interests and serves the interests or the broader interests of the region,” he continued.

Schneider also noted that Congress has been supportive of efforts to integrate defense systems among Middle East partners — with an eye toward countering Iran — which necessitates ensuring that members utilize compatible defensive systems. He added that he will also focus, in any proposals, on ensuring that Israel maintains a qualitative military edge.

“The ultimate goal is having countries working together rather than fighting each other,” he continued. “The more countries we join the Abraham Accords, the greater regional stability, the greater regional prosperity, and ultimately, it’s going to lead to regional peace.”

Axios also reported that the Saudi regime will likely seek an advancement of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which may be a difficult prospect particularly for some of the hardline members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

“Ultimately, you can’t have peace in the region completely until the Palestinians are willing to accept Israel as a Jewish state and work together towards resolving the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Schneider said. “Israel is going to have to make some tough choices in that process as well. But that’s a matter of building trust.”

He emphasized that a resolution will not come “overnight” and that a full resolution of the conflict should not be a precondition for further regional normalization, but said the Accords could provide an “opportunity” to bring the Palestinians to the table and build trust.

Saudi Arabia has reportedly asked for U.S. assistance with its civilian nuclear program as a precondition for normalization. Schneider said that there are “lots of ways” to move that project forward, but also that “we need to do everything we can as well to make sure that we prevent proliferation.”

He said that potential safeguards could include ensuring that nuclear waste from potential Saudi power plans could not be used to produce nuclear weapons.

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