Senior White House officials have reportedly been meeting with top Democratic lawmakers in recent weeks in a tacit effort to rally their support for the heavy costs the US will have to pay in order to broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and other White House officials have met with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez and Sen. Chris Murphy along with other unnamed lawmakers, The New York Times reported Thursday, citing several officials familiar with the matter.
The report came a week after two Democratic lawmakers told The Times of Israel that they were “dumbfounded” by US President Joe Biden’s decision to pursue the normalization agreement in addition to potentially accepting Israel into the US Visa Waiver Program, in what will shore up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government at a time when they believe it is egregiously undermining the administration’s interests with its judicial overhaul and antagonizing policies toward the Palestinians.
The officials speaking to The New York Times clarified that the White House is not overtly pressuring lawmakers to back a potential normalization deal but rather is trying to keep them in the loop regarding the negotiations so that Democrats don’t feel blindsided just before they are asked to sign off on the steep costs such an agreement will likely incur. The meetings have served as an opportunity for the senior Democrats to hear about some of the Saudi demands and provide feedback.
Saudi Arabia is believed to be seeking a NATO-like mutual security treaty that would obligate the US to come to its defense if the latter is attacked; a civilian nuclear program monitored and backed by the US; and the ability to purchase more advanced weaponry from Washington.
In exchange, the US is looking for Riyadh to significantly roll back its economic and military ties with China and Russia and bolster the truce that ended the civil war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is also expected to demand significant Israeli moves toward securing an independent Palestinian state, though Riyadh has yet to decide what those gestures might be.
Any new US treaty with Saudi Arabia would require the support of two-thirds of the Senate — a tall task given Republican reticence to give Biden a foreign policy victory and major Democratic concern over Riyadh’s human rights record.
In 2021, 28 Democrats in the Senate voted against a planned weapons sale to Saudi Arabia, while 22 — including Menendez and Murphy — voted in favor.
A US-backed civilian nuclear research program for Saudi Arabia without strict safeguards in place would also require approval from both houses of Congress.
“There are still a lot of pitfalls along the way. But if Saudi Arabia and Israel could come together in an agreement, it would dramatically change the situation in the Middle East for the better,” Schumer told the Times in a statement.
“There is the clear and present danger that nuclear technology can be used for military purposes, which would be perceived by Iran as destabilizing the region and maybe a reason for some kind of strike or other aggression,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
“I think they have a responsibility to explore any path that could lead to more peaceful or stable relationships in that region,” said Blumenthal, who has not been among the lawmakers granted a briefing on the matter from White House officials. “I don’t think the administration is under any illusions about how difficult or significant the obstacles might be.”
Fellow Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen told the Times that any deal would require “a high bar, and I think that bar is especially high given the conduct of this Saudi government.”
He has also stressed that it would require Israel to make significant concessions to the Palestinians.
“We’re putting a lot on the table for normalization, and we should want to frame this in a way that provides for a stable peace in the Middle East,” Van Hollen told The Times of Israel last week, adding that the deal would require major Israeli steps toward the Palestinians, including a settlement freeze, the dismantlement of all illegal outposts, and allowing the expansion of Palestinian towns in Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank.
“This is like a triple bank shot, and [it] presumes that the Netanyahu coalition could continue, even in the face of the requirements that would be put on the table to address Palestinian equities and concerns,” he added.