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Israel and Saudi Arabia have hinted they may be open to establishing formal relations

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

This week, Israel's tourism minister went to Saudi Arabia, and a Saudi envoy took a trip to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The unprecedented visits follow the U.S.-brokered relationships that were established between Israel and a number of Arab countries in 2020. And they take place against a backdrop of public statements from both Israeli and Saudi leaders that suggests the next chapter in what are known as the Abraham Accords. That's welcome news for U.S. leaders.

DEAN PHILLIPS: Never did we imagine it possible in our lifetimes to see the possible normalization of relations between the Saudis and Israelis. It's an extraordinary and historic opportunity not just for these two countries, but for the entire world.

MCCAMMON: Dean Phillips of Minnesota is the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East. The chairman of that panel is Republican Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina. They were part of a bipartisan delegation that visited Israel and Saudi Arabia in late August. And I asked them about America's place in the negotiations.

PHILLIPS: The United States plays a significant role relative to a defense pact with the Saudis equipment and materiel relative to their military and potentially a civilian nuclear program as well. If those things can be met and also meeting some of the needs of the Palestinians, this could be an extraordinary legacy at a time the world surely needs it.

MCCAMMON: What does Saudi Arabia want out of a potential deal?

JOE WILSON: I would say that they want stability. They are economically such a superpower. And then another historic step - I appreciate so much the success of President Donald Trump - where the relationship has been established of Israel with UAE, with Bahrain, with Morocco, with Sudan. Our hopes are, and still are, for the Abraham Accords to be extended to include Saudi Arabia.

PHILLIPS: And, Sarah, this is Dean Phillips. The Saudis have announced a very bold and ambitious plan called Vision 2030, in which they're investing hundreds of billions of dollars to make Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh in particular, an economic and tourism hub in the entire region. And to accomplish that, their first and foremost priority is national security. They are at risk from the Iranians and Iranian proxies. So they are seeking some defense guarantees from the United States. They want a civilian nuclear program. And the Saudis, and many of us around the world, want to see steps taken to create peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

MCCAMMON: And you mentioned the role of the U.S. in helping to broker this deal. What does the U.S. get out of it?

PHILLIPS: Well, the United States will get out of it a historic opportunity to be peacemakers, to inspire new relations, economic and otherwise. And that stability will create opportunities for United States companies, for American tourists. And I think maybe lost in this is also an opportunity for, here, a wonderful Republican and I, a Democrat, to go around the world in difficult, complicated places. And I can tell you, if Chairman Wilson and I can establish the relationship that we have, surely the Saudis and Israelis and other countries in the world can do the same.

WILSON: And it's exciting, too. And what we get out of it is our very important security partner, the democratic country of Israel, as opposed to being associated or under the influence of the Chinese Communist Party or war criminal Putin. We have such an opportunity to promote, again, stability, which is going to be so beneficial throughout the region.

MCCAMMON: Saudi Arabia's desire for nuclear power seems to be part of this conversation. How does that fit in?

WILSON: Well, I think it's exciting, and that's civilian nuclear power. And I know in my home state of South Carolina, 60% of the electric generation is through nuclear capability, which provides energy security and independence for our allies around the world and America.

PHILLIPS: And I agree with Chairman Wilson. In this day and age, we equate civilian nuclear energy production with, unfortunately, the production of nuclear weapons. They do not necessarily go hand in hand, but that is part of this negotiation to ensure that this is a peaceful use of nuclear energy. And I think we're moving in that direction.

MCCAMMON: What would an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, if it can be reached, mean for the Palestinians?

PHILLIPS: It is my hope as a proud, unwavering supporter of the state of Israel - I believe deeply in its right to exist. I also have compassion for any people that are suffering, and I do have compassion for the Palestinian people that have had very weak leadership for many generations, that live in appalling conditions too often. Children are suffering. But I think the Saudis have an extraordinary, meaningful opportunity to actually inspire better leadership amongst the Palestinians because they will need a thoughtful, principled partner on the other side of the table if anybody hopes to achieve security, peace, prosperity both for the Palestinian people and Israelis.

MCCAMMON: Why does this conversation between Israel and Saudi Arabia appear to be moving forward now?

WILSON: I believe, again, it's an extension of the Abraham Accords that have been so successful. And we need to be working together. And I'm just so concerned about terrorism around the world. Saudi Arabia is well aware that if Iran develops a nuclear capability, that it puts the existence of the kingdom at risk, too.

PHILLIPS: I agree with Chairman Wilson's contention that it was the Abraham Accords - initiated by the Trump administration - that that got this ball rolling. It took the pioneering inspiration of Morocco, Bahrain, the UAE to make peace with one of their arch enemies. That paved the path to further peacemaking. And by the way, if the Saudis normalize with Israel, I think it's fair to say that much of the Arab world and Muslim world will follow suit.

WILSON: And then, hey, lightning's going to strike. And that is - I want to say something good about the Biden administration, and that is that they reached an agreement just beyond Saudi Arabia, but with Lebanon and Israel, for offshore drilling in the Mediterranean for oil to reduce dependence on Putin. So there is progress being made, and we will continue that effort.

MCCAMMON: October 2 marks five years since agents of the Saudi government, apparently backed by the crown prince, murdered the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was a columnist for The Washington Post who'd been living in the U.S. Is that coming up in these conversations?

PHILLIPS: It most surely is, Sarah. That's a stain, of course, on Saudi Arabia, and we have to not forget that. With that said, it's an opportunity to afford the Saudis some space to recognize that that behavior not only won't be tolerated; it is antithetical to peacemaking and could destroy the very foundations of what could be the most historic normalization maybe in world history.

MCCAMMON: Congressman Phillips and Congressman Wilson, thank you so much for your time.

PHILLIPS: Thank you, Sarah.

WILSON: Grateful to be with you. Thank you.

MCCAMMON: Republican Joe Wilson of South Carolina chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East. Democrat Dean Phillips of Minnesota is the ranking member on that panel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONOCLOUD'S "MY ROOTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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