US said weighing defense pacts with Israel, Saudis as part of normalization talks

But treaties are controversial, with some fearing they’d undercut Israeli claim to defend itself by itself, others warning they could curb Israel’s ability to strike Iran

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

(From L-R) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman. (AP/collage)
(From L-R) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman. (AP/collage)

US President Joe Biden’s administration is considering signing formal defense treaties with both Israel and Saudi Arabia as part of its effort to broker a normalization agreement between the two countries, the Bloomberg news site reported Thursday.

The pacts, requiring the US to come to the defense of Israel and Saudi Arabia under certain circumstances if either were to come under attack, would likely require ratification from two-thirds of the Senate, making them a tall order — particularly the one with Saudi Arabia, given Democratic discomfort with Riyadh’s human rights record.

But the treaty being requested by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — another unpopular figure among Democrats — is also facing pushback from within the Israeli defense establishment and from within certain pro-Israel circles because Jerusalem has long maintained that it does not rely on other countries to defend itself.

There are also concerns that such an agreement would limit Israel’s independence to act against adversaries such as Iran.

Negotiations on the pacts are still in their early stages and the talks could well break down, but significant progress has been made, Bloomberg said, citing anonymous officials familiar with the matter.

Given the controversial nature of the mutual defense pact requested by Saudi Arabia, its proponents in Israel and the US have sought to present the deal in tandem with the one being requested by Netanyahu, several sources told Bloomberg.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, visits an exhibition of Iran’s nuclear achievements, at his office compound in Tehran, Iran, June 11, 2023. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Via AP)

Those proponents argue that some of those in Congress uncomfortable with a Saudi deal would have an easier time supporting it if the US signed an equivalent pact with Israel.

An arguably even more controversial part of the potential normalization deal is Saudi Arabia’s request for US assistance in establishing a civilian nuclear research facility on Saudi soil. The proposal has faced pushback from the Israeli security establishment, as well as opposition chairman Yair Lapid, with warnings that it will open the door for a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Israel signing off on a nuclear program in Saudi Arabia could also hamper some of its arguments for why Iran should not be allowed to have the same kind of program.

Netanyahu is reportedly leaning toward backing the Saudi request, as he aims to secure the normalization agreement. However, he is also looking for major safeguards to be put in place to prevent any nuclear weaponization by Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Fox News Wednesday warned against a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, but said that Riyadh would have to obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran does.

A plan to allow Saudi Arabia to openly enrich uranium and export nuclear fuel is being weighed by Israel and the US, and Netanyahu has told top nuclear and security experts in Israel to cooperate with US negotiators on a proposal for a “US-run uranium enrichment operation” in Saudi Arabia as part of a potential normalization deal, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

US President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Experts told the Journal that while there are potential remote shutdown mechanisms that could be put in place in a nuclear facility, or systems that could speed up centrifuges until they break, there were no guarantees such arrangements would be failsafe.

Saudi Arabia’s third major request under a normalization deal is access to top-notch US weaponry. This, too, is a source of controversy due to Riyadh’s human rights record, but also because it could harm Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge in the region.

To seal the normalization deal, Riyadh and Washington are also asking Israel to make significant gestures to the Palestinians to advance a two-state solution, in order to placate criticism in the Muslim and Arab world and to convince enough progressive Democrats in the Senate to forgo their reservations about Riyadh in order to back a deal.

Bin Salman said Wednesday that “every day we get closer” to Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with Israel, while clarifying that the Palestinian issue is still a “very important” component of the process.

Netanyahu also indicated optimism about a normalization deal in a meeting with US media executives in New York on Thursday, having enthusiastically backed the effort during his sit-down with Biden.

A senior US administration official who briefed reporters after Wednesday’s Biden-Netanyahu meeting said the Israeli prime minister also understands the importance of the Palestinian issue in the normalization talks.

“There’s a common understanding amongst all the leaders about this very historic step between Israel and Saudi Arabia, that all the leaders involved in this have to do some very hard things, and that includes the prime minister of Israel, and that includes some component related to the fundamental issue between Israelis and Palestinians,” the senior administration official said, while declining to elaborate on what that component might look like.

In the closest Netanyahu has come yet to the US and Saudi stance on the Palestinian issue, a senior Israeli official briefing reporters on condition of anonymity after the Biden-Netanyahu meeting said that the prime minister told the president the “Palestinians should be part of the process but should not have a veto over the process.”

Constrained by far-right coalition partners who oppose steps toward Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu is seeking to limit talk of concessions to economic projects to boost Palestinian livelihood and aid for the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Most Popular
read more: