White House Targets Key Democrats on Potential Saudi-Israel Pact - The World News

White House Targets Key Democrats on Potential Saudi-Israel Pact

To broker a new diplomatic pact between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the White House would need to persuade two historic adversaries to find common ground on thorny issues like nuclear enrichment, weapons sales and the territorial rights of Palestinians.

Then, the administration would face what could be an even more daunting challenge: getting 67 senators to go along with it.

With that challenge in mind, White House officials have been holding meetings on Capitol Hill in recent weeks with a small but influential group of Democratic senators, updating them on the details of ongoing diplomatic negotiations with Israeli and Saudi leaders. It is part of an ongoing effort to quietly build support for any Senate vote that would be needed to cement a potential pact.

Specifically, American officials have said that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is demanding a new security relationship with the United States as part of any deal to normalize relations with Israel. The exact terms of the relationship are still being discussed, but any new treaty with Saudi Arabia would require support from two-thirds of the Senate — a difficult hurdle to clear for any issue.

The effort is being led by Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, and involves other senior White House officials. It has focused primarily on members of President Biden’s own party, given how fiercely top Democrats have criticized Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler, Prince Mohammed — and how much their reservations could put a future deal in jeopardy.

In recent years, a majority of Senate Democrats have voted on multiple occasions to restrict Washington’s security partnerships with Riyadh over objections to its bombing campaign in Yemen aided by American weapons and the killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a murder that American spy agencies have judged was ordered by the prince.

Despite the uncertain path through Congress, White House officials have leaned into negotiations, making numerous recent trips to both Israel and Saudi Arabia to discuss the outlines of a possible accord. In addition to the security pact, Prince Mohammed has told American officials he also wants help from the United States to stand up a civilian nuclear program in the kingdom, as well as concessions from Israel’s government toward the Palestinians. But while Democrats have encouraged the administration’s efforts toward improving peace in the Middle East and countering Iran, many are wary of what concessions the White House might make to achieve their goal.

Several officials familiar with the discussions said the meetings are not part of an overt White House pressure campaign to support any eventual deal, but rather a way to keep lawmakers informed so they do not feel blindsided by any proposal that makes its way to Congress. Thus far, officials said that the main substance of the discussions has been to inform lawmakers about the Saudis demands and give lawmakers a forum to voice their thoughts.

Mr. Sullivan and other senior White House officials have met privately with some senators, including Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader. White House officials have also met with Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, who has been one of the chamber’s most vocal critics of Saudi Arabia.

Without commenting directly on the discussions, Mr. Schumer said: “There are still a lot of pitfalls along the way. But if Saudi Arabia and Israel could come together in an agreement, it would dramatically change the situation in the Middle East for the better.”

The White House declined to comment on the discussions. Mr. Menendez and Mr. Murphy also declined to comment.

Mr. Menendez and Mr. Murphy have objected to arms deals benefiting Saudi Arabia in years past, but they have shown willingness more recently to support the Biden administration’s efforts to deepen its ties to the kingdom. Their support is seen as critical to convincing other skeptical Democrats that enabling a peace deal between two of the most powerful countries in the Middle East is a prudent move, particularly when China has engaged in more assertive diplomatic and economic efforts in the region.

Though Democrats remain largely hesitant about Saudi Arabia’s trustworthiness, many in the party have shown a growing willingness to defer to the Biden administration as it seeks to reinforce ties with the kingdom. In 2019, Senate Democrats joined with a handful of Republicans to protest U.S. support for the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen and oppose President Donald J. Trump’s effort to use his emergency powers to approve about $8 billion of arms sales for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries.

But in late 2021, after President Biden took office, only 28 Senate Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents voted against a planned arms sale to Saudi Arabia, while 22 Democrats — including Mr. Menendez and Mr. Murphy — voted in favor.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, has been public in his support for the diplomatic initiative and has been reaching out to other Republican senators. Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has also been kept apprised of the White House’s negotiations.

“As a general rule, on a big issue like this, an administration needs to get political leaders in on the takeoff rather than the landing,” Mr. Graham said.

Though Mr. Graham was once one of Prince Mohammed’s most vociferous critics in Congress, referring to the prince as a “wrecking ball to the region jeopardizing our national security interests on multiple fronts,” he now says he supports the United States forging closer ties to Saudi Arabia as a way to isolate Iran and try to pull the kingdom away from China’s orbit.

Riyadh’s demands about a civilian nuclear program could also create unique political hurdles in Congress. Saudi Arabia is seeking a partnership that would allow the country to enrich its own uranium, a demand that if it were to exceed the tight restrictions outlined in the Atomic Energy Act, would require the approval of both the House and Senate.

“There is the clear and present danger that nuclear technology can be used for military purposes, which would be perceived by Iran as destabilizing the region and maybe a reason for some kind of strike or other aggression,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat from Connecticut and a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia.

“I think they have a responsibility to explore any path that could lead to more peaceful or stable relationships in that region,” said Mr. Blumenthal, who has not yet been a target of the White House’s outreach efforts. But, he added, “I don’t think the administration is under any illusions about how difficult or significant the obstacles might be.”

Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, conceded that any deal would require “a high bar, and I think that bar is especially high given the conduct of this Saudi government.”

Ultimately, how many senators decide to support a new defense relationship with Saudi Arabia will likely depend on the precise terms of the proposed agreement.

Although the Biden administration might be unlikely to grant the kingdom a NATO-style mutual defense pact, — one committing the United States to defend the kingdom if attacked — there are other options. Saudi officials have privately discussed the possibility of a lesser arrangement, similar to the one sealed under President Obama with India, according to Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based research group.

“Declaring Saudi a major defense partner, the way the Obama administration declared India, is something that Biden can do with his own executive authority,” said Mr. Dubowitz, who said he had proposed and discussed the idea with Saudi officials in Riyadh earlier this year.

It is unclear whether Prince Mohammed would be interested in such an arrangement, or whether he would insist on a treaty that secures an American commitment to defend the kingdom with military force. Saudi officials have remained largely silent about the potential of a deal so far, and they have publicly maintained that any normalization of ties with Israel would need to be predicated on the creation of a Palestinian state.

Israel would also have to agree to make significant, but as of yet undefined, concessions to the Palestinians — and it is not clear how much of a gesture senators would see as satisfactory.

In any potential deal, Mr. Van Hollen said, “the commitments by the government of Israel have to be meaningful and enforceable,” when it comes to the Palestinians.

Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, and Vivian Nereim from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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