GOP senator: Window for Israel-Saudi normalization deal could close within a year

During Jerusalem visit that followed meeting with MBS in Riyadh, Lindsey Graham says agreement possible but will require gestures from US and for Biden to rally Democrats

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

US Senator Lindsey Graham meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the latter's Jerusalem office on April 17, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
US Senator Lindsey Graham meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the latter's Jerusalem office on April 17, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Monday that while an Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization agreement is possible, the window to strike such a deal could close within a year.

“This opportunity is not unlimited… If we do not do it in 2023 or early 2024, the window may close,” Graham said during a press conference in Jerusalem, where he met Israeli leaders and conveyed messages he received while in Riyadh last week for a sit-down with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He argued that the Biden administration will have to turn its attention to the presidential election as November 2024 nears, leaving it with less time to broker such a high-stakes agreement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia a top priority since returning to the premiership on December 29. The Biden administration has taken steps to broker such a deal while acknowledging that prospects are currently unlikely. Graham appeared to be the first US lawmaker to suggest that the opportunity might not be on the table much longer.

Riyadh publicly states that it will not normalize with Israel until the latter agrees to a two-state solution with the Palestinians. It has also issued a rash of public statements condemning Israeli policies toward the Palestinians since the Netanyahu government was established. However, Saudi officials have privately indicated that they are willing to normalize ties with Israel if the right conditions are met.

This message was apparently passed along to Graham as well. He said Monday that “Saudi Arabia is ready to move forward with Israel if they can get a relationship with [the US].”

The Republican senator said the boosted relationship with Washington that Riyadh is seeking would likely include new defense and free trade agreements as well as cooperation from the US in the development of a civilian nuclear program.

File: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia takes his seat ahead of a working lunch at the G20 Summit, Nov. 15, 2022, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia (Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP, File)

While Israel is likely to oppose such a program, Graham insisted that a “peaceful” one could be established in Saudi Arabia.

Graham also admitted that the US warming ties with Saudi Arabia would likely face pushback from Democrats in Congress who have increasingly taken issue with Riyadh’s human rights record. Accordingly, the senior Republican senator said US President Joe Biden would first have to rally Democrats around the cause in order for the effort to succeed.

“I believe that the Republican Party, writ large, would be glad to work with President Biden to change the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, that eventually could result in the recognition of Israel by the Saudi government. That is why I’m here. It will take a lot of effort, but it is worth trying,” Graham said in a joint statement issued after meeting with Netanyahu earlier Monday.

At the subsequent press conference, the Republican lawmaker clarified that “the recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia is only going to happen when MBS believes he has a reliable partner in the US, that we are going to be there through thick and thin.”

Graham also met with opposition party leaders Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Benny Gantz (National Unity).

He said that the Biden administration had dispatched him to the region in order to test Saudi Arabia’s seriousness about a normalization deal and gauge how much the country has been able to implement reforms promised by the crown prince, known as MBS.

File: In this photo released by the Saudi Royal Palace, 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)

Senior Biden officials have made their own visits to the kingdom in recent months, though the Republican Party is seen to have a better relationship with the Saudi leadership.

Graham said at the press conference that improved US-Saudi ties would require “give-and-take” from both parties and indicated that Riyadh getting too close with China — particularly with defense cooperation — would significantly complicate the process.

Still, he insisted that MBS’s announced reforms were coming to fruition, pointing to the improved status of Saudi women, who are now allowed to drive and go out in public without a male escort.

Graham said he relayed to the crown prince that “one of the best things you can do to change the image of Saudi Arabia is to normalize a relationship with Israel — that would be the ultimate game changer.”

He said that the crown prince asked whether the Netanyahu government would be able to strike a normalization agreement while also trying to pass a radical overhaul of the judiciary that has sparked massive pushback at home and abroad.

“I told them I had a lot of confidence in [Israel’s] ability to do two things at once,” Graham recalled, while seeking to avoid weighing in on the overhaul itself.

Protesters take part in ongoing demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on April 8, 2023. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Asked whether MBS raised the Palestinian issue during their discussion about a potential normalization deal with Israel, Graham dodged but said the Abraham Accords proved that the Palestinians no longer have a veto over Arab states forging diplomatic ties with Israel.

Graham sought to downplay the normalization agreement Saudi Arabia reached with Iran last month, saying it was merely an attempt by Riyadh to “calm the waters in the region” and that the Gulf kingdom has “no illusions” regarding the Islamic republic.

However, Iran on Monday extended an invitation for Saudi King Salman to visit Tehran and a senior Hamas delegation is slated to arrive in Riyadh this week, indicating that the kingdom’s interests are far from aligned with those in Washington and Jerusalem.

Graham said he’d be returning to Washington “with great concern about the status of the Iranian nuclear program” and declared that “Israel is eventually going to have to take decisive action if things do not change.”

While he insisted that he did not seek a military conflict with Iran, Graham argued that it would be better to have one before Tehran obtains a nuclear weapon than after the fact.

The South Carolina senator said MBS told him that Saudi Arabia would seek a nuclear weapon if Iran manages to obtain one, which would spark an arms race that would further destabilize the region.

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