Twenty senators on Wednesday urged the Biden administration to be cautious in its effort to craft a historic deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, saying any agreement between the two U.S. partners must include protections to shield American interests and avoid worsening global tensions.
“We applaud the administration’s efforts to pursue the peaceful resolution of historic conflicts through diplomacy,” reads a letter signed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) ― the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate ― 18 other Democrats and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.). “As the parties make requests of the U.S. throughout your discussions, we hope that you will also seek commitments from them with respect to actions they can take to further U.S. national security interests and peace and stability in the region.”
President Joe Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have publicly discussed the prospect of a deal in recent months.
For decades, Saudi Arabia has declined to recognize Israel until the country permits the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet the Saudis and Israelis have quietly grown closer for years because of their shared opposition to Iran and their similar views on the future of the Middle East. Some of Biden’s top aides say turning that private cooperation into a public declaration of friendship would be a landmark achievement for the president, building on — while outshining — former President Donald Trump’s push to convince Muslim-majority states like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco to recognize Israel.
But many lawmakers and foreign policy experts are wary of the bid to secure an agreement. They say the proposal risks exacting a high price from the U.S. without a clear benefit.
In the Wednesday letter, the senators highlight three areas of concern, saying Biden should ensure any eventual U.S.-Saudi-Israel bargain abides by core “principles.”
The Saudis want a new security guarantee from Washington, they note, urging Biden not to entangle the U.S. too closely with “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.”
Additionally, Riyadh is hoping for U.S. assistance in developing a nuclear program and buying more sophisticated weapons, the senators write. They warn against softening the strict American regulations around nuclear exports and demand “careful deliberation” over arms deals exports given the documented Saudi history of using U.S. weaponry to violate international law.
And the legislators say Biden must push for any Saudi-Israel settlement to include “meaningful, clearly defined and enforceable provisions” to protect the possibility of a future state for the Palestinians, a professed goal of the president and of many members of Congress.
Some observers worry a deal could hurt the Palestinian cause in the long run by reducing regional support for them and emboldening Israeli extremists. Without U.S. pressure, serious commitments around Palestine are unlikely as Netanyahu’s hard-right government is loath to limit activities like settlement construction and the current Saudi leadership is far less sympathetic to Palestinians than Arab governments of the past.
The tacit warning from Capitol Hill comes amid intensive shuttle diplomacy by the Biden administration and growing public debate over the possible deal.
Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center think tank, summarized concerns about the idea among national security analysts in an essay published on Oct. 2 ― the five-year anniversary of Saudi agents’ murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“The problem with the proposed U.S.-Saudi deal is not that it subordinates values to interests,” Ashford wrote for the website World Politics Review. “It is that it is one of those rare cases where U.S. values and interests are closely aligned: Both suggest that it is a very bad deal. It won’t yield benefits for global oil markets, would do little to bolster regional security, would add to nuclear proliferation pressures and won’t reduce China’s presence in the region.”
Guided by advisers like controversial White House official Brett McGurk, Biden has adopted a far softer approach to Saudi Arabia than he promised on the campaign trail, with little to show for it so far.
The kingdom has largely ignored U.S. requests to help keep global oil prices low, to ease inflation and undercut a key source of funding for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Saudis remain close to Trump, who hopes to win back the presidency next year.