Oct 4, 2023 - World

Senate Dems raise concerns about possible elements of Saudi deal in letter to Biden

U.S. President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on July 16, 2022. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on July 16, 2022. Photo: Mandel Ngan/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

A group of 20 Democratic senators sent a letter to President Biden on Wednesday, raising concerns about a possible mega-deal with Saudi Arabia and calling on him to demand Israel make "meaningful and enforceable" concessions to the Palestinians as part of any such agreement.

Why it matters: If a mega-deal is reached, some parts of it will likely have to be approved by the Senate. That means the Biden administration will need the support from Democrats, including those who are critical of the Saudi or Israeli governments or both.

  • Biden administration officials say the president wants the majority of Democratic senators to support such a deal in order to not create a perception that the party is divided — especially in an election season.

Catch up quick: The Biden administration is pushing to get a mega-deal, which could include a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, before the 2024 presidential campaign consumes Biden's agenda. But there are still many issues that need to be worked out.

  • As part of the talks, the White House is negotiating a potential security agreement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, possible U.S. support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program, and U.S. approval for sophisticated weapons sales to the kingdom.
  • The Biden administration has made it clear to Israeli officials that Israel must make concessions to the Palestinians as part of any mega-deal that includes Saudi-Israeli normalization.
  • Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed during their meeting last month that any mega-deal that includes Israel and Saudi normalization should be based on the principle of preserving the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in the future. It's unclear what specific steps either side thinks that should include.

What they're saying: The senators, led by Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), expressed support for a potential peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but said in the letter they have several concerns about possible parameters of the deal.

The first concern was around possible U.S. security guarantees to Saudi Arabia.

  • The senators stressed that such security guarantees or defense treaties have only been provided to democracies that share interests and values with the United States.
  • "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," they wrote.

The second concern centered on possible U.S. support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program and the potential purchase of more advanced U.S. weaponry by Saudi Arabia as part of the deal.

  • The senators wrote that any Saudi nuclear program must adhere to the U.S. "gold standard" that doesn't allow domestic uranium enrichment by Saudi Arabia and also adhere to International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring.
  • On weapons, the senators said that "the provision of more advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia should be done with careful deliberation to ensure that such equipment only be used for truly defensive purposes and does not contribute to a regional arms race."

The third concern was around what a possible deal may mean for the Palestinians.

  • "[T]he agreement should include meaningful, clearly defined and enforceable provisions to achieve your stated objective of preserving the option of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," the senators wrote.
  • "This should include, among other measures, a commitment by Israel not to annex any or all of the West Bank; to halt settlement construction and expansion; to dismantle illegal outposts (including those that have been retroactively 'legalized'); and to allow the natural growth of Palestinian towns, cities and population centers and the ability to travel without interference between and among contiguous Palestinian areas," they added.

The senators also said, "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."

  • Murphy and Van Hollen said in a briefing with reporters that they have spoken in recent weeks with senior White House officials to discuss their concerns about the mega-deal.
  • The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

State of play: Senior Biden advisers Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein last week visited Saudi Arabia and met with Crown Prime Mohammed bin Salman to discuss different elements of the mega-deal, as previously reported by Axios.

  • State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday that the U.S. hasn't reached a formal framework for the mega-deal with Saudi Arabia and doesn't have the terms ready to be signed.
  • At the same time, he said there is a broad understanding of the possible elements of such a deal.
  • "There's still lots of work to do, and we're continuing to work that process," Patel said.

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