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US senators urge caution on Saudi Arabia’s demands for Israel normalisation

In letter to Biden, lawmakers share unease over possible US concessions including defence pact with Riyadh and assistance in Saudi nuclear programme
US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 16 July 2022.
US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 16 July 2022 (AFP)

A group of 20 US senators on Wednesday sent a letter to the Biden administration raising a number of concerns over the reported concessions Washington was discussing in order to broker a normalisation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The letter, spearheaded by Senators Chris Murphy, Chris Van Hollen, Peter Welch, and Dick Durbin, said that the lawmakers were keeping an "open mind about any agreement that would potentially deepen the political, cultural and economic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel".

However, they had several issues including reported discussion of a Saudi-US military pact and US support for a Saudi civilian nuclear programme.

The senators said that a high bar would be needed in order to prove Washington should enter into a defence agreement with the Saudi kingdom.

"A high degree of proof would be required to show that a binding defense treaty with Saudi Arabia – an authoritarian regime which regularly undermines US interests in the region, has a deeply concerning human rights record, and has pursued an aggressive and reckless foreign policy agenda – aligns with US interests," the letter said.

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The letter also raised concerns over the possibility of the US helping Saudi Arabia with a civilian nuclear programme.

Saudi Arabia has long sought its own civil nuclear capability, and while it does have a nascent nuclear programme, it wants to expand to eventually include activities like proliferation-sensitive uranium enrichment.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said that the country is not seeking nuclear weapons. But Riyadh has also stated that it will develop an atomic bomb if its archrival Iran does. Iran also denies that it is seeking to create a nuclear bomb.

"As the devastating war in Yemen has shown, the provision of more advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia should be done with careful deliberation to ensure that such equipment only be used for truly defensive purposes and does not contribute to a regional arms race," the senators said.

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For months, the Biden administration has been publicly stating its intention to broker a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, following through on the Donald Trump administration's successful brokering of similar agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco.

During an interview with Fox News that aired last month, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated that they are getting closer to such an agreement "every day".

Middle East policy experts have said that the push to normalise relations between the two countries, which could lead to a number of these concessions for the Saudi kingdom, runs counter to the Biden administration's stated goal of promoting democracy across the world.

"Saudi Arabia continues to lock up and torture and execute political dissidents. And so we raised concerns about the implications of extending a US security guarantee to a country with this kind of history of brutal repression," Senator Chris Murphy said during a press briefing on Wednesday to announce the letter.

'Preserving Israel's future'

Saudi Arabia has never recognised Israel and since 2002 has conditioned a normalisation deal on Israel ending its occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

However, in an interview Fox News aired with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the prince made no reference to a Palestinian state when discussing the prospects of normalising ties with Israel.

In their letter to the Biden administration, the lawmakers also stated that any normalisation agreement between the two countries should have measures that would ensure "equal measures of dignity and security" for both Israelis and Palestinians.

The senators stated a commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and said that if the US brokers a deal between Israel Saudi and Saudi Arabia, Israel should commit to not annex any part of the occupied West Bank, halt settlement construction, and dismantle illegal settlement outposts, "including those that have been retroactively 'legalized'".

"These elements are essential to any sustainable peace in the Middle East and to preserving Israel’s own future as a Jewish, democratic state," the senators said.

Previous agreements to establish formal ties between Arab states and Israel have been widely unpopular among Palestinians and supporters of the Palestinian cause.

They are viewed as rewarding Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, which UN experts and rights groups say amounts to apartheid.

The public warming of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel has similarly been met with outrage, and Riyadh's -resident ambassador to Palestine had to postpone a planned visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque last week after criticism from Palestinians.

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