May 17, 2023 - World

Biden admin pushing for Saudi-Israeli peace deal by end of year, officials say

Biden fist bumps Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Royal Court of Saudi Arabia /Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Biden fist bumps Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Royal Court of Saudi Arabia /Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The White House wants to make a diplomatic push for a Saudi-Israeli peace deal in the next six to seven months before the presidential election campaign consumes President Biden’s agenda, two U.S. officials with knowledge of the issue told Axios.

Why it matters: Any normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel brokered by the U.S. will likely include an upgrade in U.S.-Saudi relations and a package of tangible deliverables from the U.S. government.

  • Such a deal could be unpopular among Democrats and might cost Biden a lot of political capital. Biden once vowed to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" over the kingdom's human rights record and the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. U.S. intelligence says Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for Khashoggi's murder — an allegation Saudi Arabia denies.
  • But a deal could be a historic breakthrough in Middle East peace, leading to a domino effect of more Arab and Muslim-majority countries normalizing relations with Israel and putting U.S.-Saudi relations back on track.

Driving the news: White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with MBS last week in Jeddah and, among other issues, discussed the possibility of Saudi-Israeli normalization, the U.S. officials said.

  • After the meeting, White House Middle East czar Brett McGurk and Biden’s senior adviser Amos Hochstein traveled to Jerusalem and briefed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Behind the scenes: According to the two U.S. officials, Sullivan told MBS the U.S. thinks there is an opportunity to get a Saudi-Israeli deal by the end of the year.

  • MBS said he doesn’t want to take any more incremental steps toward warming relations with Israel, but instead, work toward one big package that will include U.S. deliverables like stronger military cooperation, one U.S. official said. The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to specific questions related to this story.
  • Two senior U.S. officials said it's in Saudi Arabia's interest to get a normalization agreement with Israel while President Biden is in office because it would receive more bipartisan political support and legitimacy in Washington, especially when it is likely to include U.S. steps toward Saudi Arabia that would be unpopular.
  • While Republicans in Congress generally support a deal with Saudi Arabia, many Democrats who are critical of the kingdom will only support such an agreement if done under a president of their own party, the two U.S. officials said.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who visited Saudi Arabia and Israel several weeks before Sullivan’s trip, met MBS in Jeddah and gave him a similar message about getting a deal with Biden.

  • "I told the crown prince that the best time to upgrade our relationship is now, that President Biden is very interested in normalizing relationships with Saudi Arabia and, in turn, Saudi Arabia recognizing [Israel]," Graham said in a statement after his meeting with Netanyahu in Jerusalem several days after he met MBS.
  • “I believe that the Republican Party, writ large, would be glad to work with President Biden to change the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia," he added.

What they're saying: A National Security Council spokesperson said the White House "does not comment on the content of private diplomatic discussions."

  • "The United States is fully committed to strengthening and expanding the Abraham Accords and supporting Israel’s integration into the Middle East," the spokesperson added.
  • "This will be an area of continued emphasis and focus for us over the coming period as we look to achieve a more integrated, more prosperous, and more stable region that serves the interests of our partners and the United States over the long term."

Between the lines: A senior Israeli official told Axios he agrees with this analysis and also stressed the Saudis would be better off cutting a deal with a Democratic president.

  • The Israeli official compared it to Netanyahu’s decision to get the security assistance deal with President Obama in 2016 and not waiting for a possible electoral win by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
  • “The fact we got the deal with Obama strengthened support by Democrats in Congress for U.S. military aid to Israel," the official said.
  • Israel sees Saudi Arabia as the “holy grail” of its outreach to the Arab world and has long wanted to normalize relations with the kingdom, especially since the signing of the Trump-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020.

State of play: U.S. officials say that one of the biggest hurdles to getting a wide-ranging deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel has to do with the Saudi request to upgrade is military cooperation with the U.S. and gain access to sophisticated U.S. weapon systems it doesn't currently have.

  • The Saudis also want to be able to purchase munitions from the U.S. for their air force after such sales were suspended by the Biden administration weeks after the president assumed office due to the war in Yemen.
  • U.S. and Israeli officials say the truce in Yemen, which was boosted by the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, creates better conditions for improving U.S.-Saudi ties and for moving forward with such a deal.
  • U.S. and Israeli officials say another hurdle is the Saudi request to get U.S. support for a Saudi nuclear program that will include uranium enrichment.
  • The possibility of Saudi Arabia developing a nuclear energy program, including independent uranium enrichment, is a matter of serious concern for Israel, but Israeli officials say there are several possible solutions that are being discussed to mitigate the nuclear proliferation concerns.

What to watch: Any deal will likely include a “Palestinian component” that Israel will have to agree to.

  • The Saudis said publicly that normalization with Israel will take place only if there is progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
  • It is unclear what the Saudis and the U.S. will ask for and how far Netanyahu’s far-right government will go to secure a deal.
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