Democrats Tell Biden Saudi-Israel Pact Needs Concessions for Palestinians

Democratic senators told President Biden on Wednesday that any diplomatic pact between Saudi Arabia and Israel would need to include a commitment from Israel to halt settlements in Palestinian territories and preserve “the option of a two-state solution.”

The demands would probably be met with stiff resistance from hard-line members of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who have blocked all substantive concessions to the Palestinians.

In a letter signed by 20 senators, the lawmakers also expressed concerns that a new U.S. defense treaty with Saudi Arabia — which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is insisting be part of a deal to normalize relations with Israel — could enmesh the United States even deeper in the Middle East.

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

The letter is a sign of how much skepticism the Biden administration faces from Democrats as it tries to navigate already complex negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Any new defense agreement with Saudi Arabia would require approval by two-thirds of the Senate, meaning the support of Democrats is crucial for Mr. Biden.

Prince Mohammed is also insisting that Israel make concessions to the Palestinians as part of the deal, and the Democratic senators insisted on Wednesday that the concessions need to be meaningful.

“It cannot be a sort of check-the-box exercise,” Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, one of the signatories, said during a call with reporters.

The measures the senators listed are significant, including a commitment by Israel not to annex any of the West Bank and a halt on the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements. These actions, the senators wrote, would help achieve Mr. Biden’s stated objective of “preserving the option of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

“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 letter stated.

Mr. Netanyahu’s government is likely to look dimly on these demands. Since it took office last year, Israel’s far-right government has announced huge expansions of Israeli settlements, making the prospects of a Palestinian state’s ever being created even more remote.

American officials have said Mr. Netanyahu is eager for a diplomatic pact with Saudi Arabia, which could be a political windfall for him at a time when he is facing fierce opposition in his own country for his efforts to weaken Israel’s judiciary.

The topic of Saudi Arabia’s normalizing relations with Israel was at the center of a meeting last month between Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu, according to people familiar with the private meeting.

During his speech to the United Nations, Mr. Biden mentioned the benefits of Israel’s becoming more integrated into the rest of the Middle East but said he remained committed to a Palestinian state.

His administration, he said, is working “tirelessly to support a just and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians — two states for two people.”

Karoun Demirjian contributed reporting.

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