trial balloon deflated

U.S. lawmakers pour cold water on a Saudi-U.S. deal that leaves out Israel

Congressional lawmakers remain optimistic that Saudi normalization with Israel, alongside a defense treaty with the U.S., can still be reached

MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman (C) inspects a guard of honor during a ceremonial reception at the President House a day after the G20 summit in New Delhi on September 11, 2023.

Saudi Arabia remains interested in normalizing relations with Israel alongside a defense treaty and other agreements with the U.S., congressional lawmakers told Jewish Insider on Wednesday.

The comments came following an article in The Guardian that suggested Saudi leaders have floated de-linking negotiations with the U.S. from normalization talks with Israel, if Israel is unwilling to agree to a path to a two-state solution. The U.S.-Saudi deal has long been viewed as contingent upon normalization with Israel, and the Saudis have demanded a path to a two-state solution peace since Oct. 7.

Secretary of State Tony Blinken was also in the region this week to make progress on agreements with Saudi Arabia and engage with Israeli leaders.

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), who visited Saudi Arabia last weekend to speak on a World Economic Forum panel and meet with senior Saudi officials, said that there remains enthusiasm in Riyadh for normalization with Israel.

“The Saudis were very open about wanting to reach an agreement with Israel,” Schneider, who also co-chairs the House Abraham Accords Caucus, told Jewish Insider in an interview in his Capitol Hill office on Wednesday. “It can happen. We’re at a fork in the road, and I hope we take it.”

Schneider said he interpreted the Guardian article as reflective of Saudi Arabia’s interest in moving forward “to this different future” and its intent that normalization with Israel should be linked to a path to Israeli-Palestinian peace. He said Saudi Arabia “still want[s] to go down this path” even if Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “won’t come along.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of the most vocal advocates in the Senate for the U.S.-Israel-Saudi Arabia deal, told JI that the Saudis “have been terrific” and have given him no indication they’re seeking to pursue a U.S. deal divorced from normalization with Israel.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), a co-chair of the Senate Abraham Accords Caucus, told JI that she thinks “there’s going to be progress” toward a normalization deal and that the Saudis remain interested in an agreement.

“I think we just need to try and help move it along as best we can,” Ernst said. “There’s still indication it’s still moving forward in spite of what happened [on Oct. 7 and the subsequent war in Gaza]. So I am still very optimistic.”

In the Senate, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seemed skeptical of a defense treaty with Saudi Arabia not paired with a normalization deal with Israel — as had been floated in the Guardian story.

“It has to be part of an agreement to normalize relations with Israel and a number of other factors as well,” Sen Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told JI. “It’s a condition, in my view, for any defense [treaty].”

Graham said that a U.S.-Saudi agreement without the Israel component would not be viable in the Senate.

“There will be no defense agreement with my vote that doesn’t include normalization with Israel and safeguards for Israel’s future,” Graham told JI.

He also said on X that a Saudi deal without an Israel normalization component would not receive the requisite 67 votes in the Senate. “This has been true since the very beginning and remains so today,” he added.

That said, some lawmakers might be open to moving ahead with a deal with Saudi Arabia sans normalization.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) didn’t directly address the question but told JI that the U.S. “can help repair some of those [differences between Israel and Saudi Arabia] if they do exist. But I think we should be fairly pragmatic in our desire to have good relationships with both countries.”

Ernst said she would “look at them separately, but I’d love to see them move together.”

Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, have steadfastly resisted calls for a two-state solution in the wake of Oct. 7, which Schneider noted is a key hurdle to the path toward normalization with Saudi Arabia.

Schneider said he has “total sympathy with the Israelis” who reject the idea of a two-state solution amid the ongoing Hamas rocket attacks, war and hostage crisis in Gaza, but said, “there is a possibility to change literally the course of history… and that can’t happen if the Palestinians don’t have the aspirational hope to achieving their dreams for a state.”

He described Saudi Arabia as “the gateway to the negotiations that will bring peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.” A normalization deal, Schneider continued, must be “done as soon as possible,” noting that myriad challenges, including U.S. elections and potential threats in the Middle East, could upend the prospects for a deal if not executed quickly.

“This moment is here, we need to grab it now… and make it happen as soon as possible,” he said.

Schneider said that such a deal would not grant the Palestinians a state immediately and that the Palestinians would have to demonstrate that they can live peacefully with Israel before a two-state solution can be finalized.

The first step toward a normalization deal, Schneider continued, would be a temporary cease-fire and hostage deal with Hamas — a prospect the terrorist group has rejected for months. Following that, he said that normalization could move forward in the coming weeks and months, potentially by the end of the year.

Schneider said that Hamas leaders have a choice about whether to prioritize their own interests or the future of the Palestinian people, but also said that “we can’t allow Hamas to exercise veto power” over the normalization and peace process.

As such, Schneider said he agrees with the case laid out on Wednesday by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, who argued that Israel should implement a unilateral temporary cease-fire in Gaza to create space for normalization talks if Hamas continues to refuse proposed deals.

But Schneider acknowledged that such a move would also leave the more than 130 hostages remaining in Gaza in Hamas’ hands. He said he’s hoping that the U.S. and Arab partners can put sufficient pressure on Hamas to secure a deal.

Hamas and the war in Gaza are not the only potential obstacles to the proposed multi-pronged deal among the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia. Any defense guarantees to Saudi Arabia, and potentially other parts of the deal, will likely require Senate ratification.

Given the increasingly difficult politics around Israel and the Middle East since Oct. 7, Schneider said he’s not positive that there are 67 votes in the Senate to ratify a deal. But he argued that “if we can seize this moment” and present a deal that will “lift everyone up in the region,” then “we won’t be talking about 67, we’ll be talking about somewhere between 80 and 90 or more” votes in favor.

Even before Oct. 7, at least 20 Senate Democrats said they were skeptical of defense guarantees and nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia and demanded concrete progress for the Palestinians. 

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