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- Feb 22, 2017
Saudi Arabia Seeks U.S. Security Pledges, Nuclear Help for Peace With Israel
Agreement could upend Middle East geopolitics but faces daunting obstacles
Saudi Arabia is asking the U.S. to provide security guarantees and help to develop its civilian nuclear program as Washington tries to broker diplomatic relations between the kingdom and Israel, people involved in discussions between the two countries said.
Striking a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia has become a priority for President Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amid a looming confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program and military aid to Russia during the Ukraine war. The Biden administration is deeply involved in the complex negotiations, the people said, and any deal would reshape the Middle East’s political landscape.
The Saudi demands for security guarantees and nuclear aid are among the daunting obstacles to a deal, as some Washington lawmakers will likely oppose those measures. There remains caution in Riyadh about striking a deal that would come under fire in the Arab world and exacerbate tensions with Iran.
Support in Saudi Arabia and across the Arab world for openly embracing Israel has also cooled in recent weeks as violence surges in the West Bank to levels not seen in nearly two decades and Mr. Netanyahu presses ahead with judicial-law changes that have triggered massive protests, some of the people said.
Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who now focuses on strengthening Israel-Arab world ties as a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, called a potential deal “a very tough Gordian knot to cut.”
“Normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, facilitated by the United States, is in all three parties’ interests,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to arrange.”
Still, U.S., Israeli and Saudi officials said a deal is possible. Mr. Netanyahu is looking to build on Israeli ties to the Arab world that expanded in 2020 with the so-called Abraham Accords, when four Muslim nations committed to normal relations with Israel.
Saudi Arabia has intensified security ties with Israel in recent years with an eye to confronting Iran and sees growing potential for business deals as the kingdom looks to diversify its economy away from oil. A deal would mark a diplomatic victory for Mr. Biden, who has had repeated clashes with Saudi Arabia over human rights, oil prices, the war in Yemen and support for Ukraine.
If Saudi Arabia—home to the two holiest sites in Islam—were to establish formal ties with Israel, it could send a signal to other Arab and Muslim leaders that they would be free to embrace Israel while also accelerating U.S.-led efforts to create a regional military alliance to counter Iran.
A Saudi-Israel deal could also extinguish the flickering Palestinian hopes of creating an independent state. For decades, the Saudis have said publicly that a Palestinian state is a prerequisite for recognizing Israel. Saudi Arabia faces unique pressure to stand firmly with the Palestinians, whose plight resonates with millions of Arabs and Muslims around the world.
But Israeli officials say Saudi Arabia hasn’t sought significant concessions on the Palestinian issue as part of the talks. Two pro-Israeli American think-tank delegations returned from trips to Riyadh late last year believing the Saudis didn’t see the Palestinian issue as paramount.
“Discussion of the Palestinians was pretty dismissive,” said John Hannah, national-security adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney and a fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.
Biden administration officials and some Saudi officials say that Israel will have to do something to address Palestinian aspirations for independence. Those involved in the talks say a deal could be reached if Israel agrees to take a modest step—such as holding peace talks with the Palestinians, which have been frozen for nearly a decade.
The Saudi demands of Washington are another obstacle.
Riyadh officials want U.S. support to enrich uranium and develop its own fuel production system, Mr. Hannah said. American and Israeli officials worry that doing so would allow Saudi Arabia to develop a nuclear weapon and accelerate an arms race with Iran, which has a nuclear program that is the subject of an array of U.S. sanctions. Iran says its program is peaceful.
“The nuclear issue is one of, if not the biggest challenge for Israel, and one Israelis should debate whether it’s worth the price for peace,” said Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies specializing in Saudi-Israel relations.
Saudi Arabia also wants firm guarantees that the U.S. will come to the kingdom’s defense when needed. But past efforts by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to secure such U.S. assurances have been rebuffed by recent Democratic and Republican presidents.
One option under discussion: Naming Saudi Arabia a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, a special status given to Israel, Qatar, Jordan and other countries friendly to U.S. interests. The move would formally make Saudi Arabia a U.S. ally and give it easier access to American weaponry.
Giving Riyadh that elevated status could face blowback in Congress, where influential lawmakers from both parties view the kingdom as unreliable. Mr. Biden himself derailed weapons sales to Saudi Arabia when he took office in 2021, and Congress has pushed to halt arms deals with Riyadh.
“The kingdom is committed to normalization with Israel,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has traveled to Saudi Arabia several times in recent months to discuss these issues with key leaders. “Its requirements from Washington, even if they sound excessive to some, are an expression of Saudi security concerns and not a way to say no to Israel.”
Saudi Arabia faces risks at home if it establishes diplomatic relations with Israel, with polls showing mixed opinions.
Opposition among Saudi citizens to establishing ties with Israel has fallen to 38% in 2022 from 91% in 2014, according to a recent poll by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. But the same poll found that, when Saudis were asked if they openly support normalizing with Israel, only 5% said yes in 2022, compared with 12% in 2016.
Polling by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has found surging support in Saudi Arabia for business and sports ties with Israel, but fading backing for the Abraham Accords.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, has indicated that he wants to see significant support among Saudi citizens before he agrees to any deal, according to people who have met with him to discuss the issue.
Even without formal relations, Israel and Saudi Arabia have deepened economic, security and diplomatic ties.
In 2021, the Pentagon moved Israeli security issues under the umbrella of Central Command, which includes nations such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait that have no official relations with Israel. That paved the way for more military cooperation between Israel and longtime adversaries.
More Israelis are getting special visas allowing open travel to Saudi Arabia for the first time. In October, top Israeli business leaders spoke at Saudi Arabia’s premier investment conference.
WSJ News Exclusive | Saudi Arabia Seeks U.S. Security Pledges, Nuclear Help for Peace With Israel
Striking a normalization deal between the two countries has become a priority for President Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.