Senior Republicans court Trump on Biden-brokered Saudi deal

Supporters of Biden administration’s push for Saudi-Israel deal lobby Trump to back potential deal – in hopes of bringing Senate Republicans onboard.

By Shimon Sherman, JNS

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recently urged former President Donald Trump to back the efforts of the Biden administration to negotiate an Israel-Saudi normalization agreement, saying it would transcend partisan politics.

“I told President Trump this is the natural extension of the Abraham Accords, and if we can do it, let’s do it. It doesn’t matter how it gets done, on whose watch it gets done. It’d be a good thing for the stability of the Middle East and our own national security, and President Trump deserves his fair share of the credit,” Graham said.

The senator said he told the former president that the Biden administration continuing his Middle East agenda was “the height of flattery.”

One of Riyadh’s central demands in exchange for normalization is a U.S.-Saudi mutual defense pact that would require approval by two-thirds of the Senate to pass into law.

“The Saudis want something stable and dependable, they want a deal with the U.S., not with one administration, so a defense pact and bipartisan support are crucial,” Professor Eytan Gilboa, director of the Center for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), told JNS.

However, two-thirds support in the Senate is far from a certainty.

“They need Trump to deliver broad Republican support. Many are unlikely to follow because there is a lot of partisan politics going on and they won’t want to give Biden a major foreign policy win,” Gilboa said.

So vocal opposition from Trump would likely kill the agreement in the cradle.

“If Donald Trump says that he could ‘get a better deal’ and pushes strongly against this, it could be very negative for normalization,” Gilboa said.

Other experts are more optimistic about Republican support for a Biden Israel-Saudi agreement.

“I think that they are likely to get very broad Republican support for this issue if it is good for the U.S. and good for Israel,” Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS. “From the pro-Israel side, from the anti-Iranian side, and from the side of moving Saudi Arabia and the Middle East away from China’s orbit, this fills a lot of checkboxes for Republicans.

“Having Trump support might be useful, however, as a guarantee that he won’t be upset that they did the deal with Biden if administrations switch [after the election] in 2024,” Goldberg added.

The larger obstacle

Currently, the larger obstacle in gaining two-thirds support in the Senate is Democratic resistance, due to the antipathy in the party toward Saudi Arabia and in some cases toward Israel.

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“The president is more likely to get opposition from his left wing,” Goldberg said.

Democrats have been widely critical of any deal with Saudi Arabia, due to the kingdom’s poor human rights record. In fact, Biden ran received a cold reception during his most recent trip to Saudi Arabia after he earlier criticized Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) for the murder by Saudi agents of dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the country’s consulate in Istanbul.

“We still have business with Saudi Arabia and that’s the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. I’m very reluctant to expand the relationship until that issue is adjudicated and justice is brought to Mr. Khashoggi and his family,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) was recently quoted as saying.

The Saudi demand for help with a civilian nuclear program is another major sticking point for Democrats.