(Bloomberg) -- The White House is considering formal defense treaties with Saudi Arabia and Israel as part of its plan to get two of its closest allies in the Middle East to formally recognize each other, according to several people familiar with the matter.
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The administration of President Joe Biden believes one way to achieve Israeli-Saudi normalization is to offer both security pacts comprehensive enough to require Congressional approval, according to the people, who have knowledge of the stance of each of the three countries.
While there’s still plenty to negotiate and the talks could break down, officials are making significant progress, the people said.
A deal would hand Biden a major diplomatic win as he heads into elections next year. For Israel, it would open the door to more business with the Middle East’s largest economy and help counter Iranian aggression. It could also encourage other Muslim-majority states to have friendlier ties with Israel, given the kingdom’s status as the guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites at Mecca and Medina.
In addition, the agreements could ease tensions in the region and help secure its vital oil- and gas-shipping lanes.
Biden discussed the issue with Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on Wednesday. The Israeli prime minister said he’s confident of forging “a historic peace” between his country and Saudi Arabia. In an interview aired hours later, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Fox News that “every day we get closer” to a deal.
US and Israeli officials have discussed treating the two defense deals as effectively part of the same package to increase the chances of Congress agreeing to them, said several of the people. While many Senators are wary of any deal that obliges the US to defend Saudi Arabia, they would be more reluctant to reject a wider pact if such an action hurt Israel, said the people.
It will be crucial to sell a Saudi deal “as a long-term basis for stability in the Middle East and as a benefit for a key US ally — Israel — that has huge influence on Capitol Hill,” said analysts at Eurasia Group including Ayham Kamel and Sofia Meranto.
The US is determined to foster greater cooperation among its allies in the Middle East, not least to counter the growing influence of China. Revamping its military and security architecture in the region is now seen as crucial, said the people. Last week, it upgraded its defense relationship with Bahrain, albeit not to the extent that it needed to ask Congress for approval. The Saudis have told the US they want a deal that goes further than the one with Bahrain, said the people.
“A treaty obligating America to assist Saudi Arabia in case of an attack benefits the whole GCC,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi commentator with knowledge of the talks between Washington and Riyadh. He was referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-member grouping of major energy exporters including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.
Saudi Arabia has asked for firm defense guarantees from the US, access to top-notch American weaponry and for assistance in building a nuclear-energy sector as conditions for normalizing ties with Israel. It also wants Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, but has sent mixed signals as to what it may ultimately accept.
The kingdom’s foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan, told Saudi state media this week that his country would do everything to put the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back on the table.
“For us, the Palestinian issue is very important, we need to solve that part,” Prince Mohammed told Fox, before adding that “good negotiations” are continuing.
The US is asking Saudi Arabia to curb ties with China in sensitive high-technology areas in return for stronger security ties. Washington may also ask the Saudis to release some political prisoners and reform laws on free speech and criminal justice, according to Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute think tank, who is in contact with Israeli, Saudi and US negotiators.
Washington and Riyadh have reached a broad agreement on the nuclear and security aspects, though many details still need to be worked out, said the people. Saudi Arabia wants not just to build nuclear power plants, but to enrich uranium locally and eventually export nuclear fuel, which the US and Israel remain wary about.
Saudi Arabia has said its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes. But Prince Mohammed, the country’s de facto ruler, reiterated to Fox that if regional rival Iran builds a nuclear bomb, the Saudis will follow suit.
Any nuclear agreement with Saudi Arabia will meet the US’s stringent non-proliferation standards, according to one American official.
The Palestinian issue remains an obstacle given the right-wing bent of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, said Dennis Ross, a former White House Middle East envoy. The current government is the most religious in the country’s history, with many ministers opposed to any concessions to the Palestinians such as a freeze on more Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Palestinians Seek Benefits From Israel-Saudi Arabia Deal
“Up until now, the focus has been entirely on the bilateral: what they want from us, which the administration seems quite willing to find a way to provide, and what we’re asking from them in return for that, which the Saudis also seem open to responding to,” Ross said in an interview last week. Securing anything significant from the Israeli government for the Palestinians “will be very hard.”
While Israel is one of America’s closest allies globally, the two don’t have a formal defense treaty. Many in Israel have long opposed one, believing it could restrict their ability to strike other states or groups unilaterally. Any pact would need to leave Israel with freedom of action, said one of the people.
A US-Saudi defense pact would “fundamentally alter” Washington’s posture in the Middle East and as such it would be “strategically short-sighted not to seriously explore the merits of doing the same with Israel,” said John Hannah, senior fellow at the The Jewish Institute for National Security of America, a Washington think tank with close ties to officials in both Israel and the US.
Though talks involving the three countries are moving forward, US officials have urged caution.
“There may well be specific things that will be important for us, with regard both to Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as things they will need from each other, as well as things that other parties may well need,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week. “We’re not there. There’s no guarantee we’ll get there. We believe it’s profoundly important if we can achieve it, but I would wait to see if something emerges.”
--With assistance from Ethan Bronner and Justin Sink.
(Updates with comment from analysts at Eurasia.)
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