US Jewish leaders push Biden to include moves toward 2 states in Saudi normalization

Report says administration and Saudis discussing a potential defense pact modeled on American treaties with South Korea and Japan, a key demand of Riyadh in the talks

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes US President Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes US President Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)

Over 75 current and former American Jewish community leaders have signed onto an open letter to US President Joe Biden, urging him to only pursue a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia that includes “measures that tangibly advance prospects for a two-state solution” and reverses “the worrisome trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The letter was published Tuesday as Biden addressed the UN General Assembly, where he referred to his administration’s push for further Arab states — chiefly Saudi Arabia — to normalize relations with Israel and its “tireless” work toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

“In practical terms, this would entail halting Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and increasing territorial sovereignty for Palestinians, while simultaneously holding the Palestinian Authority accountable to reforms and strengthening its financial stability,” the letter stated. “These steps would arrest the current deterioration of the situation on the ground and advance American interests by improving regional stability and laying the groundwork for two states.

“This is necessary both for the sake of the viability of the agreement itself and as a bulwark against further escalation of the conflict, which is especially important at a time when Israel’s security and its Jewish and democratic character are being tested.”

Signatories included the heads of the Reform and Conservative religious denominations, former executives at AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America, the ADL, the Conference of Presidents, and the Jewish Agency along with former US ambassadors to Israel.

“In your upcoming meeting with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, and in your administration’s discussions with Saudi and Palestinian leaders, we urge you to pursue an agreement that would, in addition to advancing American national security interests, enhance Israel’s long-term security, and expand regional peace, which necessarily requires reversing the worrisome trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the letter organized by the Israel Policy Forum said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (front) walks, during a joint press conference with the Saudi foreign minister (not pictured) after a ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State in Riyadh on June 8, 2023. (Ahmed Yosri/Pool/AFP)

The US in recent months has been seeking to broker a normalization deal, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken considering a trip to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia next month as part of that effort.

In exchange for normalizing ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia is asking for a major defense pact with the US, major arms deals and US cooperation in establishing a civilian nuclear program on Saudi soil. Washington, in turn, is looking for Riyadh to pare down its economic and military dealings with China and Russia.

According to a report Tuesday in The New York Times, American and Saudi officials have been discussing a potential defense alignment modeled on the US agreements with Japan and South Korea, with the United States and Saudi Arabia pledging to provide military support if one of them is attacked in the region or on Saudi soil.

The report noted that such a defense treaty would likely face considerable resistance in Congress, with some top US lawmakers, including many in the Democratic Party, highly critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman over his rights record.

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The US normalization efforts are expected to feature in Biden’s meeting Wednesday with Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, where the premier is also reportedly likely to raise the prospect of a defense pact between Israel and the US.

Citing unnamed Israeli and American sources, the Walla news site reported that during a recent trip to the US, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer raised the topic with top administration officials, who reacted coolly and told him the matter would only further complicate the talks with the Saudis.

An American source was quoted as saying that one reservation was opposition from the Israeli defense establishment to such a treaty, on the grounds that it would limit Israel’s freedom of action. The report said Dermer recently has been lobbying IDF chief Herzi Halevi and Mossad head David Barnea in a bid to get their support for an agreement, apparently believing this would help ensure administration backing.

It was not clear how Halevi and Barnea responded to Dermer, who reportedly argued the pact would be “narrow” and not tie the hands of the military and other security agencies, as it would only deal with situations such as a serious nuclear threat posed by Iran or an attack using unconventional weapons.

Netanyahu previously backed a potential defense pact with the US when president Donald Trump was in office and though the leaders mentioned publicly that they discussed it, there appeared to be little headway on the issue. Dermer, a longtime confidant of the prime minister, was Israeli ambassador to the US at the time.

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