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Lindsey Graham: Normalization with Saudi Arabia possible by 2024

Following meetings with the Saudi monarch in Riyadh, the GOP senator warns Jerusalem not to lose focus on the chance to build “lasting peace and stability in the Middle East.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on April 17, 2023. Credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on April 17, 2023. Credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO.

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on Monday that a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia was achievable within a year, but warned that the window of opportunity was closing.

“We cannot afford to wait and risk losing this critical moment,” said Graham during a press conference in Jerusalem. “We must act now, within this year, to seize the momentum and help forge a new chapter of cooperation and understanding among these key regional players,” he added. “If we achieve this it would be the biggest change in the Middle East in my lifetime,” he continued.

Sen. Graham met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday, following a trip to Saudi Arabia last week, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The current Israeli coalition has set expanding the series of landmark peace deals struck between Israel and several Arab states in 2020, known as the Abraham Accords, as their top foreign policy priority. Bringing Saudi Arabia into the Accords is considered a crucial step. Netanyahu emphasized the potential benefits of such an agreement during a joint statement with Graham on Monday.

“We want normalization and peace with Saudi Arabia. We view that as perhaps a giant leap toward ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. This agreement could have monumental consequences, historic consequences both for Israel, for Saudi Arabia, for the region and for the world,” said Netanyahu.

According to Graham, the Biden administration shares that goal.

“I told the crown prince [of Saudi Arabia] 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 the one and the only Jewish state. To the extent I can help make that happen, I will do it,” he said.

Graham’s visit to the region comes against the backdrop of renewed ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have raised concern that prospects of normalization with Israel may be receding.

However, Graham said that he remains optimistic that the Saudis are committed to normalization.

“I am confident that Saudi Arabia is moving in the right direction and is genuinely committed to building bridges with the West and promoting peace in the region,” he said. “Ultimately, Iran is part of the region, and reaching out to the neighborhood, or talking to warring factions, is part of any long-term process,” he added.

In his interactions with Saudi officials, Graham said, he had noted a genuine openness to normalization with Israel.

“My conversations with Saudi leaders have revealed a sincere willingness to engage in the normalization process and work towards a more peaceful and prosperous region.”

Graham further said that he saw a concrete modernization effort during his visit to Saudi Arabia, including economic diversification, social reforms and the increased involvement of women in public life.

“Things are changing in the right way in Saudi Arabia. Women are now almost 40% of the workforce, there are massive investments in infrastructure, and an ambitious vision for a new Saudi Arabia. In my eyes, this is the surest sign that they are serious about improving relations with the United States and with Israel,” he said.

“The extensive investments that Saudi Arabia is making in its infrastructure, such as the ambitious Vision 2030 plan, signal the kingdom’s long-term commitment to align itself with the international community,” he added.

Graham also addressed during his visit the sensitive issue of Saudi Arabia’s demand for a nuclear program as part of a possible normalization deal. He acknowledged the Saudi demand, emphasizing that such a program could be developed in a manner that does not pose a threat to Israel or destabilize the region.

Graham noted in a statement on Sunday that “while Saudi Arabia has legitimate energy needs and aspirations for a nuclear program, it is crucial that this be done in a responsible and transparent manner, in full compliance with international non-proliferation standards. By working closely with Israel and other regional partners, we can ensure that Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions do not undermine the security and stability of the region.”

With regard to the recent domestic instability in Israel surrounding the issue of judicial reform, Graham expressed confidence that it has not derailed the normalization process with Saudi Arabia. However, he emphasized the importance of Israel maintaining its focus on building closer ties with the Saudis in order to further the peace process in the region.

“While Israel is currently dealing with domestic challenges related to judicial reform, it is essential not to lose sight of the broader goal of normalization with Saudi Arabia. By continuing to engage with the Saudis and fostering mutual understanding, Israel can ensure that these internal issues do not hinder the progress that has been made towards lasting peace and stability in the region,” he said.

Finally, Graham stressed on Monday the urgency of seizing the current opportunity to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, cautioning that the window for achieving this milestone is closing.

“The rapidly changing geopolitical landscape means that the opportunity to build lasting peace and stability in the Middle East may be fleeting,” he said.

The looming American presidential election cycle would also begin to lower the chance for a normalization deal as it approaches, he added.

“We’ll get into presidential politics back home soon, and from there it will get harder and harder,” he said, adding, “2023 is a year of great opportunity and great challenge.”

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