Hill Dems skeptical of Saudi-Israel normalization, despite Biden admin’s interest in a deal
Saudi demands for advanced weapons sales and U.S. assistance with its nuclear program could prove difficult among key Democrats on Capitol Hill
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Achieving a peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia — the brass ring of Arab-Israeli normalization with the potential to radically change the shape of the Middle East — is potentially achievable in the short term, analysts say, but myriad obstacles remain.
The Biden administration is reportedly pushing for a deal by year’s end. Saudi Arabia is asking, as part of the negotiations, for increased military cooperation with the U.S., sales of advanced weapons from the U.S. with a speedier approval process and assistance developing its civilian nuclear power program, including domestic uranium enrichment. Both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are expected to press Israel to take steps to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Saudi demands are likely to be problematic among lawmakers on Capitol Hill, especially Democrats, who have repeatedly pushed back against arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s nuclear program. Vocal opponents of such programs in the past have included lawmakers who are also strong supporters of Israel and influential Democrats in senior foreign policy roles on the Hill.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), a staunch supporter of Israel who has also backed legislation seeking to cut off arms sales to and nuclear cooperation with Riyadh, expressed deep skepticism of many of the reported Saudi conditions.
“The short-term political benefits go to whatever politicians are in office when this great celebratory [agreement] with the Saudis… is concluded,” Sherman told Jewish Insider last week. “The issue has got to be what’s in the long-term interest of Israel and the United States. And [the Abraham] Accords exist until they’re discarded, whereas weapons are forever, and nuclear weapons are forever.”
Sherman compared the potential fallout of expanded arms sales to Saudi Arabia to the fall of Iran’s shah, which left a vast supply of U.S. weapons in the hands of the Islamic Republic. Sherman said that a change in government in Saudi Arabia, or a change in policy by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman — whom Sherman described as “a mercurial guy” — could leave a vast supply of advanced American weapons in unsavory hands.
Sherman took an even harder line on potential nuclear assistance, noting that Saudi Arabia has resisted the sort of safeguards to which other U.S. partners such as the United Arab Emirates have agreed. He argued that a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia could be just as dangerous as a nuclear-armed Iran.
“Just because the Saudis are not Shiites does not mean that they are Zionists,” Sherman said. “Anything that brings Saudi Arabia closer to a nuclear weapon is a non-starter with Brad Sherman.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) has been an outspoken critic of the Saudis’ human rights record; Washington Post contributor Jamaal Khashoggi, whom U.S. intelligence alleges was executed on the orders of Bin Salman, was one of Connolly’s constituents.
“We still have unfinished business with Saudi Arabia, and that’s the murder of Jamaal Khashoggi,” Connolly said. “I’m very reluctant to expand the relationship in any fashion until that issue is adjudicated and justice is brought to Mr. Khashoggi and his family.”
Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), who led a past effort in the House to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, told JI he’d view any deal including increased arms sales to and military cooperation with Saudi Arabia with “tremendous skepticism.”
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who has also been a skeptic of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, struck a more positive tone.
Meeks told JI that Saudi normalization with Israel would be “tremendously” important and that he “support[s] it and encourage[s] it,” but added that “there has to be some dialogue and conversation with Saudi Arabia. Some of the concerns that I’ve had previously, whether it is with weapons… there still has to be a dialogue and conversation. Human rights is still an issue… Dialogue and conversation is important, and I’m willing to have that and move in that direction.”
Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, predicted that “if [there is] real normalization, then I think a Democratic Congress might be willing to support” arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but noted that such a situation could ultimately depend on presidential veto authority — which blocked a previous effort to cut off arms to the kingdom.
Miller added that if Saudi Arabia sticks to all of its demands, an agreement will likely not be feasible.
Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that there are also a number of ways for the administration to circumvent potential congressional opposition.
The administration, he explained, could use executive authorities to declare Saudi Arabia a major non-NATO ally and a “major defense partner.” The latter is a designation previously granted to India that could provide “a whole host of military benefits — it can basically be anything the president wants it to be.” Biden could also shorten the congressional review period for weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.
Dubowitz described the nuclear issue as “much more complicated” than the weapons sales, in part because past U.S. agreements with allies for nuclear cooperation include clauses that would require the U.S. to renegotiate those deals if the U.S. were to allow Saudi Arabia to enrich or reprocess uranium.
He said there are a “variety of formulations” that are possible to circumvent the enrichment issue, but added that “if the Israelis draw a clear red line against any kind of Saudi enrichment in any capacity, that’s probably going to be a nonstarter in Washington, particularly in Congress.”
Rob Satloff, the Segal executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued that focusing on specific conditions of a potential deal is not productive.
“It’s natural but still a mistake to address each item in a very complicated three-way negotiation in a vacuum. Looked at individually, quite a few of the items will be problematic, either for us or for one of the other parties to deliver,” Satloff said. “The real challenge of this negotiation is that it’s three-dimensional, and that each of the parties will have to offer very substantial assets to both of the other parties in order to achieve the desired result… When thinking of all the moving parts, it’s vital to keep in mind we’re talking about an environment in which the region is transformed via a Saudi-Israel full normalization agreement that would trigger normalization agreements with numerous other Arab and Muslim states.”
Saudi and Israeli leaders could see finalizing a deal while Biden remains in office as a way to help lock in congressional Democratic support for a deal. Biden, meanwhile, could benefit politically from a foreign policy victory in the Middle East after failing to rein in Iran’s nuclear program and being blindsided by a diplomatic deal China orchestrated between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“The Saudis want it done under a Biden administration because I think they understand that having a Democratic president would certainly be better in terms of bringing Congress along,” Dubowitz said. “A Republican president could bring Republicans but not necessarily Democrats. A Democratic president could bring both.”
Dubowitz said he heard this sentiment in Saudi Arabia during a recent visit to Riyadh. He compared the situation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s drive in 2016 to negotiate a memorandum of understanding on military aid with the U.S. under former President Barack Obama to secure greater Democratic support, despite the two leaders’ personal animosity.
Miller said that Bin Salman harbors deep “animosity and disdain” for Biden, which could disincentivize from striking a deal while Biden remains president. Doing a deal with Biden, he added “would be harder but it would probably create a certain amount of bipartisanship that wouldn’t exist, presumably, if this deal was done under a Republican president.”
Analysts also said that finalizing a Saudi-Israel deal could help unlock greater congressional support for Saudi Arabia. Dubowitz noted that a deal could rally support from the network of pro-Israel Americans and lobbying groups who maintain influence with Congress.
Miller described the Saudi leader as taking a similar path as former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, explaining, “when you’re talking about getting buy-in from Congress, the best way to do it is via Jerusalem.”
Demands related to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could be significantly constrained by Netanyahu’s right-wing governing coalition.
“It’s hard for me to envision any concession of real value and meaning for the Palestinains that Netanyahu would be prepared to make given the current constraints of his government,” Miller said. “The question is not what Netanyahu’s prepared to give. It’s what MBS is prepared to accept. How low is his threshold for satisfying his needs or requirements on the Palestinian issue?”
Dubowitz said there are a range of measures Israel and the Palestinians can take, with Saudi assistance, to reduce tensions well short of a full peace process. But even limited steps could challenge Netanyahu’s governing coalition.
Dubowitz said that Netanyahu could present the situation to Israeli voters as “a very stark choice” between significantly expanded normalization and support for “some far-flung settlements,” in a bid to “isolate” extreme members of his coalition and convince them to come along or be relegated to the opposition in a new round of elections. Or Netanyahu could use a normalization agreement to seek a unity government with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, Dubowitz said, although that could raise issues for Netanyahu’s personal legal challenges.
Satloff noted that the White House is likely to ask for as much, if not more, on the Israeli-Palestinian issue as Riyadh. He noted that the progress on the Palestinian portfolio could also help sell the deal to American progressives.
“The [concessions Saudi Arabia has reportedly asked for from the U.S.], part of the environment in which that is possible is an environment in which this Israeli government does things on the Palestinian issue that one would think are extremely difficult and may even trigger a coalition crisis or the formation of a new government in Israel,” Satloff said.
Overall, Miller said, “the chances of [a normalization deal] happening are better now than ever before,” pointing to recent public comments by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who conducted talks earlier this month in Riyadh and Jerusalem.
“But,” Miller continued, “the factors that need to be aligned — the sun, the moon and the stars — right now are not in alignment. And that, I think, is the key question. Can you figure out a way to solve the triangular puzzle in a way all the pieces fit together?
Satloff said that “there’s a lot of work to be done” and “any number of minefields that need to be navigated,” but also “clearly a possibility of a breakthrough.” He noted that the normalization process is a much higher priority for Israel and Saudi Arabia than it is for the U.S. in the current environment, another potential obstacle.
“I take some measure of hope that the Biden administration is taking this seriously and is committing considerable effort to this, which is necessary. It’s not sufficient, but it’s certainly necessary,” Satloff said. “The three parties are engaged, it’s serious and so I think the possibility is real.”
Dubowitz argued that “all three parties have a vested interest in making it happen before election season kicks in.” He said that Saudi Arabia’s decision on whether to allow direct flights between Israel and Jeddah for the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that begins in late June, will be a barometer on the state of normalization efforts.
“I think that would be a good indicator that Saudi-Israel normalization is on a positive trajectory,” Dubowitz said. “If it’s not done, that doesn’t mean Saudi-Israel normalization is off the rails. But if it is done, I think it’s a positive step forward.”