Israel believes the window for a US-backed normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia could close at the end of President Joe Biden’s term, according to Israeli media reports.
In recent months, Haaretz reported, Israel has sent messages through multiple channels to Riyadh stressing that if Donald Trump returns to the White House, he would struggle to garner bipartisan support to meet the demands the Saudis would have for a potential deal.
The Saudis are reportedly asking for a mutual defense agreement with America, advanced defense technology and a civilian nuclear program.
“There is a chance to enlist enough Republicans to support an agreement during Biden’s tenure because of their support for Israel,” an Israeli official involved in the matter told Haaretz. “It will be much harder to convince Democrats to support such an agreement if the three people identified with it are Trump, [de facto Saudi ruler] Mohammed Bin Salman and Benjamin Netanyahu.”
There is a real chance that Trump could serve a second term beginning in January 2025. The latest New York Times poll released on Tuesday showed him and Biden locked in a statistical tie.
In order for a defense pact to be sufficiently secure for the Saudis, it would have to be a formal treaty and not a presidential decree, which can simply be overturned by a subsequent administration. Treaties require 2/3 support in the Senate.
Though Senate Republicans won’t be eager to grant Biden a major diplomatic win ahead of elections, Israeli officials reportedly believe they would end up supporting a peace agreement after concerted lobbying from pro-Israel organizations.
The Prime Minister’s Office categorically denied the report. “There was no such message,” a spokesperson told The Times of Israel.
But former ambassador to Washington Michael Oren said of the report: “It makes sense. The Biden clock is a factor.”
Washington has sought to advance an Israel-Saudi normalization deal because of its perceived benefits to US national security. In recent years, Saudi Arabia and other pro-Western Gulf states have balanced a shift in US attention to the Asia-Pacific region and to Russia by expanding ties with Iran and with China.
Such a deal would see Riyadh offer an unprecedentedly large aid package to Palestinian institutions in the West Bank, significantly roll back its growing relationship with China and help bring an end to the civil war in Yemen.
It is unclear where exactly talks stand, and what Israel’s involvement in them is.
National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi sought to tamper expectations on Monday in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster.
“We were positively surprised a few months ago when the White House… said it was exerting efforts to reach a deal with the Saudis,” Hanegbi told Kan.
Talks “are currently not at that area of dialogue” where a full deal was being discussed, he added. “I can identify with what the US president said in an interview a few days ago, where he said that the road is still long but that he thinks that there will be a possibility of progress on the issue.”
On Friday, Biden hinted at potential progress in the long-sought deal after months of US officials playing down the possibility, saying that “there’s a rapprochement maybe underway.”
The New York Times reported Saturday that Biden has not yet made up his mind on the desirability of an Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization deal, but dispatched his top national security aides to Riyadh to discuss a deal.
According to that report, Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman expressed an increased willingness to reach a deal on normalization with Israel during a previous visit by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in May, prompting Biden to launch a “full-bore effort.”
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said Monday that Israel was “the closest we have ever been to a peace agreement” with the Saudis.
Netanyahu has long sought an elusive normalization deal with the Saudis, repeatedly describing it as one of the top priorities of his new government and one that could lead to an end to both the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Biden pledged during the 2020 campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over its human rights record and the 2018 murder in Turkey of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, remarks that angered Riyadh.
But US relations with the desert kingdom warmed again in 2022, when Biden visited both Israel and Saudi Arabia on a trip to reportedly secure a number of understandings from Riyadh, including higher oil production to offset gas prices, and to boost the alliance amid changing geopolitical landscapes in the Middle East and Asia.
Jacob Magid contributed to this report.