Inside storyWhite House source counters: It's unlikely but still possible

Window for Biden to broker Israeli-Saudi deal before election has shut — sources

With Congress in session for only 4 more weeks before US presidential vote, there’s not enough time left for Senate to ratify agreement, which first requires still-elusive Gaza truce

Jacob Magid

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

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, March 20, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, March 20, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

The window for US President Joe Biden’s administration to broker a long-sought normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia before the November presidential election has closed, a Democratic lawmaker and a senior Republican Senate aide told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

The normalization deal on its own was always an uphill battle, since Saudi Arabia is demanding that Israel agree to establish a pathway to a future Palestinian state — a framework Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected.

But the US has sought to advance the normalization deal in parallel to its own defense pact with Saudi Arabia, which would require Senate ratification.

The two congressional sources speaking to The Times of Israel maintained that there is not enough time left in the congressional calendar for the Senate to hold the hearings necessary to approve the defense deal.

Indeed, there are less than four weeks in which the US Senate is in session before it recesses on September 27 for the last time until the election. This period includes the month of August, when Congress is only open for two days.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could theoretically try and call lawmakers back from recess in October, but the two congressional sources acknowledged that the administration would not be able to secure the backing of the roughly 10 Republicans needed to approve the pact weeks before the presidential election.

In this image from video, Republican US senators and staff, lower right, talk on the floor after a vote on the motion to allow witnesses in the second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump in the Senate at the US Capitol in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)

A White House official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, didn’t go as far as the congressional sources, arguing that the window to secure a deal “hasn’t closed completely.”

But they agreed that a deal isn’t possible without a ceasefire first being reached in Gaza — a point made publicly by top US and Saudi officials, who have recognized that Riyadh will not be able to sell a normalization deal domestically or in the region if the Israel-Hamas war is still ongoing.

An Israeli official involved in the hostage release and ceasefire negotiations with Hamas told The Times of Israel earlier this week that progress had been made in recent days, while clarifying that the sides will likely need two or three more weeks before a deal is finalized, given the gaps that still remain and the pace of the talks thus far.

“The politics were already going to be extremely difficult, given Republicans’ aversion to giving Biden [achievements] in an election year and the aversion of many Democrats to giving such prizes to the current Israeli and Saudi leadership,” said the senior Republican Senate aide.

“But now the administration is fighting against time, which it just doesn’t have enough of,” the aide added.

US Senator Lindsey Graham — one of the few Republicans to declare up front that he would be prepared to back a deal brokered by a Democratic White House — surmised upon meeting Netanyahu in January that the administration had until June to finalize the normalization agreement.

GOP senator Lindsey Graham meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, May 29, 2024. (Yehezkel Kandil/GPO)

The White House official clarified that even if Biden loses the election, the US could still finalize a deal in the lame-duck period between the November election and the January inauguration, but that would entail another level of political complexity.

A second Israeli official agreed with the conclusion of the congressional sources that the window for a pre-election normalization deal has shut, while a State Department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Conventional wisdom suggests that a deal might be easier to ratify under a Biden White House, because he could bring along Democrats wary of Jerusalem and Riyadh’s rights records along with Republicans who have overwhelmingly backed the Abraham Accords, the series of Israeli-Arab normalization deals brokered by former US president Donald Trump.

Under Trump, Senate Democrats wary of both Israel and Saudi Arabia are seen as less likely to back providing security guarantees to Riyadh.

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