analysisMiddle East

The Democratic Party and Riyadh’s normalization demands

A Saudi civilian nuclear program is particularly unpopular.

Saudi blogger Mahmoud Saud meets with Israeli Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter (left), then chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, July 22, 2019. Credit: Israeli Knesset.
Saudi blogger Mahmoud Saud meets with Israeli Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter (left), then chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, July 22, 2019. Credit: Israeli Knesset.
Amichai Stein. Credit: Courtesy.
Amichai Stein
Amichai Stein is the diplomatic correspondent for Kan 11, IPBC.

“It’s way too complicated” is what you hear from officials involved in the attempts to clinch a deal between Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Israel. This would be a deal that includes normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, a security and defense package for the Saudis and Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

“But it’s not impossible,” the officials usually add.

“Everyone knows what they need to do, but every part, every detail, breaks down into tiny pieces,” an official with knowledge of the talks told JNS.

What the Saudis want

The Saudis’ demands have been on the table for almost a year. They include a weapons deal and defense pact with the U.S. and a civilian nuclear program.

The biggest obstacle to meeting these demands is the Democratic Party.

“Security guarantees are the hardest thing to swallow,” a Democratic Party official told JNS. “Saudi Arabia is not ‘a big fan of democracy’ and to tie the U.S.’s hands with what the Saudis will want to do or not is not very popular.”

A Saudi civilian nuclear program is particularly unpopular. On this issue, Israeli officials are not universally enthusiastic either. Some think that, with certain limits, Israel “can live with it.” Others believe that it will start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with more countries starting their own nuclear programs. Some, like Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, suggest that the Korean model of a U.S. nuclear umbrella be applied to the Saudis.

This will be one of the hardest issues to solve, with many different ideas being floated.

What Israel will have to concede

Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told JNS that “if the U.S. is expected to make major commitments as part of an agreement, so must both the Saudis and the Israelis.”

In the case of Israel, he said, this “includes meaningful, clearly defined and enforceable provisions to preserve the option of a two-state solution and to meet [U.S. President Joe Biden’s] own demand that Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal measures of freedom and dignity.”

This is how many Democrats feel these days: Israel will need to take concrete steps toward the Palestinians in any kind of normalization deal with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis need this so they will not seem to be abandoning the Palestinians. But it is also important to the U.S.

There are many Democratic congressmen and senators who are skeptical about a defense pact with Saudi Arabia, U.S. and Israeli officials told JNS. Concessions to the Palestinians, they said, will allow Biden to go to these lawmakers and tell them: ‘I know you don’t like what we are signing with Saudi Arabia, but look what Israel will be doing in such an agreement.’

In other words, steps toward the Palestinians are needed to cool down the Democratic Party base, especially since many of them will ask why the U.S. needs to pay a heavy price that will benefit Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government they view as extremist.

This attitude will be a major problem for Netanyahu. A government official told JNS, “There is almost a 100% chance that Netanyahu’s government will fall if he takes concrete steps toward the Palestinians. Promises and words are one thing, but giving the Palestinian Authority concessions will cause the government to collapse.”

Israeli opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz have said they will not join a Netanyahu-led government even if his current government collapses because of a Saudi normalization deal. No solution to Netanyahu’s problems will come from them.

U.S. politics

Lastly, there is the major issue of the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Primary season is just around the corner and the clock is ticking.

It may be hard to get Republicans to support a U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal during an election year, and some of the Saudis’ demands would require approval by Congress. Israel and the Biden administration are trying to garner Republican support. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who supports a normalization agreement, is heavily involved in this effort, but as the election draws closer, the task will become increasingly difficult.

“The Saudis know they might get more from a Republican president,” an official involved in the negotiations told JNS. “But they want bipartisan support, and that, they know, they will only get with a Democratic president. If Trump wins in November [2024], the Democrats will not support him giving away weapons and guarantees to the Saudis.”

Next month, the G20 summit will be held in India. Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are expected to attend. If a bilateral meeting between the two takes place, it will indicate progress in negotiations for a deal. If not, we will have to wait a bit longer.

Amichai Stein is the diplomatic correspondent for Kan 11, IPBC.

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