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20 Senate Democrats urge Biden to add preconditions to Jerusalem, Riyadh peace

“American interests would be best furthered by helping the parties find additional areas of agreement,” said Shoshana Bryen of the Jewish Policy Center.

U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on July 17, 2022. Source: Wikimedia Commons via the U.S. president's Twitter account.
U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on July 17, 2022. Source: Wikimedia Commons via the U.S. president's Twitter account.

Twenty Senate Democrats penned a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden on Oct. 4 advising Washington to insist that Jerusalem and Riyadh agree to certain preconditions prior to diplomatic normalization.

Specifically, the group—led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism—called for Israel to halt housing construction in Judea and Samaria; dismantle “illegal outposts (including those that have been retroactively ‘legalized’)”; and “allow the natural growth of Palestinian towns, cities and population centers and the ability to travel without interference between and among contiguous Palestinian areas.”

The senators said that Washington needs a “high degree of proof” that a defense treaty with Saudi Arabia would align with U.S. interests and should ensure that it isn’t sending weapons or otherwise empowering Riyadh to engage in a “regional arms race.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), one of the legislators who led the group, told JNS that an Israeli-Saudi agreement “would be an important breakthrough in the Middle East, and we would welcome such normalization without conditions.”

“The issue is that both Saudi Arabia and Israel are asking the United States to make very significant commitments to facilitate normalization,” he added. “The United States should seek reciprocal commitments that protect and advance our national security interests. That is what the letter is about.”

‘Contrived political agenda’

When asked to explain why Van Hollen was saying both that normalization should occur “without conditions” and with “reciprocal commitments”—and why the letter identifies provisions to achieve a two-state solution—a spokesman said the senator welcomes Israeli-Saudi normalization without U.S. involvement. But if Washington is to be involved and to make its own serious commitments, the other countries ought to do the same.

JNS also inquired as to why the letter set preconditions on Israel and Saudi Arabia that the Biden administration did not seem to seek when it released $6 billion to Iran last month in exchange for American hostages. The spokesman said that the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, included many enforceable provisions to “keep Iran’s nuclear program in a box, which is a clear national security interest for the United States.”

The letter comes amid growing frustration among Israeli and Saudi officials over what they call Washington’s overemphasis on concessions to the Palestinians as a prerequisite to normalization.

Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS that the letter is based on “policy hypocrisy” and uses a “contrived political agenda to inject directives” contrary to Israeli security.

“I was not overly impressed that this letter managed to only get 20 signatures,” he said. “If there are only 20 Democrats today who have managed to sign this, then rumors of the demise of a normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel are premature.”

Two of the 20 signatories, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), are “more moderate” on Israel, according to Goldberg. But Murphy and two other signatories—Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—exhibit “a complete disconnect” by injecting Palestinian issues into the deal, which neither Saudi Arabia or Israel needs nor wants.

“These senators have zero credibility on this issue,” Goldberg said of Murphy, Duckworth and Sanders.

‘Proceeding at their own pace’

Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Jewish Policy Center, agreed that the letter makes demands not endorsed by Israel nor Saudi Arabia.

“The administration centers on the belief that Iran can be dealt with under the mullah regime and that Palestinian statehood is the key to a peaceful future,” Bryen told JNS. “Israel and Saudi Arabia reject both positions, and instead are proceeding at their own pace and in their own way.”

“American interests would be best furthered by helping the parties find additional areas of agreement,” she said. “And not insisting that outdated American tropes be adopted by its regional partners.”

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