Twenty Senate Democrats lay down their conditions for a Saudi-Israel normalization deal
The senators are dubious of a proposed Saudi defense treaty and demand that conditions advancing a two-state solution be included in any trilateral deal
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A group of 20 Senate Democrats laid out their expectations for a deal with Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, expressing skepticism of a proposed defense treaty with Riyadh, demanding significant protections for Palestinians in the West Bank and insisting on strict conditions on any potential nuclear cooperation with the Saudis.
The lawmakers’ letter, organized by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Peter Welch (D-VT) and sent to President Joe Biden, highlights the difficulties that lie ahead even if the administration is able to secure a trilateral deal to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia and broaden the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Depending on the contours of the deal, Biden may not automatically be able to count on the support of a sizable number of Senate Democrats, among whom distrust of Saudi Arabia is widespread. The fate of a deal, some facets of which could require a two-thirds majority for ratification in the Senate, could rely heavily onSenate Republicans.
The Democrats said they’re “concerned” about the prospect of a U.S. security guarantee to Saudi Arabia, noting that the U.S. has historically offered such agreements primarily to fellow democracies and has not pursued them in the “volatile Middle East.” They also called for “careful deliberation” before providing more advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia.
“A high degree of proof would be required to show that a binding defense treaty with Saudi Arabia — an authoritarian regime which regularly undermines U.S. interests in the region, has a deeply concerning human rights record, and has pursued an aggressive and reckless foreign policy agenda — aligns with U.S. interests, especially if such a commitment requires the U.S. to deploy substantial new permanent resources to the region,” the letter reads.
Murphy said during a virtual press conference on Wednesday he’d view an agreement as a “bet” that a treaty with Riyadh would “convince Saudi Arabia to begin consistently acting in accordance with U.S. national security interests.”
“To the extent that this does come before the Senate, this will be a question for every senator — do you believe that the Saudi regime is willing to consistently align itself with U.S. security interests?” Murphy continued. “Or do you believe that they will continue to act as they have been, which is to constantly play the United States off against Russia and China to effectuate the best possible deal for Riyadh?”
The letter also argues that any deal “should include meaningful, clearly defined and enforceable provisions” to benefit Palestinians in the West Bank and “preserv[e] the option of a two-state solution.”
The senators said that such conditions should include a commitment by Israel not to annex any part of the West Bank, and end to settlement construction and expansion, the dismantling of illegal outposts, including those that Israel legalized following their construction, and provisions to “allow the natural growth of Palestinian… population centers” and free travel between contiguous Palestinian areas.
“If we don’t take the kinds of actions identified in this letter, there will be no opportunity going forward to achieve a two-state solution,” Van Hollen said on the press call. “This may be the last, best chance to salvage the possibility of a two-state solution in the future.”
Murphy acknowledged that such concessions would be difficult for the current Israeli coalition government, but emphasized that “our national security interest is anchored to the long-term survival of a Jewish state in the Middle East and a[n] ability for the Palestinians to have a nation that is their own” but not “the survival of any particular Israeli government coalition.”
He added that, if the U.S. is going to agree to a defense treaty in the region, “then we clearly have an elevated interest in trying to reduce flashpoints in the region,” including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The lawmakers stressed in the letter that the U.S. should impose stringent standards on a potential Saudi domestic nuclear program in line with or equivalent to “123 Agreements” it has signed with other partners, and require Saudi Arabia to agree to stringent International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Such provisions are intended to protect against the possibility of a nuclear weapons program.
The lawmakers also emphasized in the letter that they are “maintaining an open mind” about any potential agreement, that they’re supportive in concept of the administration’s efforts to pursue peace between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
“We all support normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, just like we have supported the Abraham Accords, just like we hope every country in the world will normalize relations with Israel,” Van Hollen said. “The question that comes here is, what kind of commitments does the United States have to make to facilitate that normalization? And what kind of commitments should we be asking other parties in return?”
He also said that lawmakers will need “a good solid answer for what’s in it for [the U.S.],” given Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and relations with Russia and China.
Murphy noted that formalized normalization — on top of the increasingly public informal ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia — is important for both the stability of the Middle East and the “moral power” of advancing peace on the global stage.
“I just don’t think you can take the informality of the relatively stable relations today for granted,” he said. “You have a better chance at those better relations lasting if there is a formalized agreement.”
Murphy said during the press call that, given that talks are ongoing, the administration has not yet clarified to lawmakers what form an agreement might take, or if it will actually require congressional ratification.
The letter’s signatories include many of the Senate’s progressive critics of Israeli policy but some who’ve taken more traditional views on the U.S.-Israel relationship. Signatories included Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Tom Carper (D-DE), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Patty Murray (D-WA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), John Fetterman (D-PA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Jon Ossoff (D-GA), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM).
There are also indications that influential lawmakers outside of the group share at least some of the signatories’ concerns.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ben Cardin (D-MD) told Jewish Insider he had not seen the letter, but reiterated his own concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia and safeguards on a potential Saudi nuclear program.
Cardin said that whether a deal could gain support from the majority of Senate Democrats will depend on what it entails.
“This is such an important transaction. If they can get it done, I’m all for it,” he said. “But there are lots of areas that have to be done right. So one of the things that I intend to do as chair is make sure that we have a very transparent process, the hearings, et cetera, that are going to be necessary.”