WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia is seeking security guarantees from the United States, help with developing a civilian nuclear program and fewer restrictions on U.S. arms sales as its price for normalizing relations with Israel, people familiar with the exchanges say.
If sealed, the deal could set up a major political realignment of the Middle East.
Riyadh’s ambitious request offers President Biden the chance to broker a dramatic agreement that would reshape Israel’s relationship with the most powerful Arab state. It could also fulfill his pledge to build on the Trump-era Abraham Accords, which brokered similar diplomatic deals between Israel and other Arab nations, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.
A normalization deal would also fulfill one of the most cherished goals of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, capping what he considers a legacy of increasing Israel’s security against its archenemy, Iran. The deal would strengthen regional alliances, analysts say, while downgrading the relative importance of the Palestinian issue.
Officials and experts in the United States and the Middle East were divided on how seriously to take the proposal, given the frosty relations between Mr. Biden and Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.
Violence between Israel and the Palestinians has been rising under the country’s new right-wing government in recent weeks. The Saudi government has issued repeated public condemnations of Israeli actions, dimming the near-term prospect of a deal. Analysts say a major escalation such as a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising, would render an agreement impossible.
Saudi officials have said they cannot forge normal relations with Israel — a step that would include formal diplomatic interactions and likely also trade and travel agreements — before a Palestinian state is established. But some people familiar with the discussions said they believe the Saudis, who have been building closer unofficial ties to Israel, would settle for less than that. The discussions were reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal.
“It’s interesting for a number of reasons,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration.
Mr. Netanyahu “wants it badly, and he can only get it with Biden’s help,” Mr. Indyk said. “That creates a situation where Biden has leverage over Netanyahu to persuade him that nothing good can happen with Saudi Arabia if he allows the situation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to explode.”
He added that Mr. Biden would also see full normalization between the countries as being in the United States’ interest, particularly as a means of countering Iranian influence. Biden officials have long said it is their goal to build on the Trump-era accords.
Still, Riyadh’s requests present several obstacles. U.S. officials have long been wary of Saudi efforts to establish a civilian nuclear program. They fear it could be a first step toward a nuclear weapon, which Riyadh may seek as insurance against a potentially nuclear-armed Iran. It is unclear what the terms of a security agreement might be, but they are likely to be well short of a mutual defense guarantee like the one that binds NATO nations, people familiar with the discussions said.
Even if Mr. Biden were willing to meet Prince Mohammed’s terms, he would likely encounter firm resistance in Congress, where many Democrats have recently pressed to downgrade relations with the Saudi kingdom.
“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia has to be a direct bilateral relationship,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “It should not run through Israel.”
“The Saudis have been consistently behaving badly, over and over,” he added. Mr. Murphy has pressed for limits on the sale of U.S. arms that the kingdom might use in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition’s intervention has caused civilian casualties and exacerbated a humanitarian crisis.
“If we’re going to enter into a relationship with the Saudis where we’re doing more significant arms sales, it should be in exchange for better behavior toward the United States, not just better behavior toward Israel,” he added.
As a 2020 presidential candidate, Mr. Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia an international “pariah” for its conduct in the war in Yemen, and to “pay the price” for the 2018 murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Early in his tenure, Mr. Biden released a classified intelligence report finding that the killing of Mr. Khashoggi was “approved” by Prince Mohammed. Since then, Saudi Arabia has angered Biden officials with cuts to oil production, which they say cost American consumers and generated profits for a Russian war machine heavily financed by oil.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment directly on diplomatic discussions but said the Biden administration supports closer ties between Israel and its Middle East neighbors, including Saudi Arabia.
The Israeli embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Though Mr. Netanyahu has said often, most recently in an interview Thursday in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, that he aimed to strike a diplomatic deal with Saudi Arabia. “I certainly believe that the peace agreement between us and the Saudis will lead to an agreement with the Palestinians,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to questions about the discussions. One Saudi official said that the checklist should be taken seriously but that Saudi Arabia still predicates normalization on the creation of a Palestinian state.
Two people familiar with the matter said the U.S. negotiations are being led by Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and Amos Hochstein, Mr. Biden’s top aide for global energy issues. One said that Prince Mohammed has played a direct role in the negotiations but that the more active interlocutor lately has been the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud.
After making their wishes known to U.S. and Israeli officials, senior Saudis began communicating them late last year to policy experts in the United States, including members of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, who visited Riyadh in October.
Senior Saudi leaders “bitterly noted what they believe was U.S. indifference to Saudi security concerns,” Robert Satloff, the executive director of the institute and a member of the visiting group, wrote with a colleague in a subsequent report.
But one “very senior Saudi official” surprised his visitors by sharing his conditions for normalization, they wrote.
The remarks were particularly unexpected given that they came at a low point for U.S.-Saudi relations, after an unusually public spat between Washington and Riyadh over a Saudi decision to recommend a cut in oil production by OPEC+ nations. President Biden had visited Riyadh just a few months earlier, bumping fists with Prince Mohammed, and believed that the Saudis would maintain higher oil production targets. Biden administration officials said they were surprised and angered by the production cut and vowed to re-evaluate America’s relationship with Riyadh.
Given the difficult relationship, the Saudi offer could be interpreted as a “rhetorical move,” said Abdulaziz Alghashian, a Saudi researcher who studies his country’s policy toward Israel. The goal might be to put Mr. Biden in the awkward position of refusing to deliver an agreement that Israel badly wants, an outcome that could disappoint Jewish American groups with political clout.
Mr. Alghashian said it was unlikely that Saudi officials would actually facilitate a major foreign policy victory for Mr. Biden while he was still president, given their grievances with his administration.
“The Saudi ruling elite do not want Biden to be the American president to take credit for Saudi-Israeli normalization, but they don’t mind Biden taking the blame for its absence,” he said.
Still, the fact that discussions are happening at all highlights the way Prince Mohammed, whose country is home to the two holiest sites in Islam, has emerged as more of a pragmatist than an ideologue, willing to break with traditions to pursue what he considers his country’s interests.
“We do not view Israel as an enemy, but rather as a potential ally,” Prince Mohammed said in an interview with The Atlantic, according to a transcript published by the Saudi Press Agency. The Saudi kingdom gave Israeli airlines greater access to Saudi airspace in July, in a move that analysts said signaled Saudi willingness to engage with Israel.
But spiraling violence in Israel along with new settlement activity in the West Bank and ambitions in Mr. Netanyahu’s government to exert more control over Palestinian areas have complicated that goal.
Last month, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, called the situation in Israel “a very dangerous moment” and said that any peace with the country must “include the Palestinians, because without addressing the issue of a Palestinian state, we will not have a true and real peace in the region.”
Analysts say the Saudi government has some ability to override public opinion on the subject, but only to a point. In a November poll by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 76 percent of Saudis said they had negative views of the Abraham Accords.
With more than 20 million citizens, Saudi officials have less room to counter public opinion than their counterparts in smaller states like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Saudi leaders have little to gain from doing the same, particularly when they can get what they want from Israel — from shared intelligence to state-of-the-art spyware — under the table, analysts say.
Ahmed al-Omran contributed reporting from Hofuf, Saudi Arabia.