(CNN) — When South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was in Saudi Arabia late last month meeting with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the country’s young, defacto ruler, the two decided to call up a mutual acquaintance— Donald Trump.

Graham was there to discuss the high-stakes deal the Biden Administration has been working on for more than a year that would normalize diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, two historical rivals who have a mutual interest in isolating Iran.

President Joe Biden and his team of envoys have found an unexpected partner in Graham, who has offered to wrangle Republican support for what would be a massive agreement that could also include a US-Saudi defense pact and steps toward a two-state solution for Palestine.

Graham has also emerged as a key diplomatic channel with bin Salman, or MBS as he’s known, and says he briefs Biden’s team on his conversations with the powerful crown prince.

Sitting together last month, Graham and MBS spoke with Trump for roughly five minutes, two people familiar with the call told CNN. The conversation was friendly and consisted mostly of exchanging pleasantries and casual chatter about the US presidential election. At one point, Trump touted his poll numbers, one of the people said. Not once did the normalization deal come up, both sources said.

The call encapsulates how Trump looms over an agreement that US, Israeli and Saudi officials all see as vital to achieving lasting stability in the Middle East. While the former president stays aware of the talks, he is not engaged, people familiar with the matter say.

The agreement taking shape is an extension of the work that occurred under Trump to normalize relations between the Arab world and Israel, culminating in the 2020 Abraham Accords, which saw Bahrain and UAE recognize Israel’s sovereignty.

Any US treaty would need to pass the Senate, and there is a real concern among some involved in the current talks that Trump may try to scuttle any follow-up agreement by Biden, like when he urged congressional Republicans not to support a bipartisan immigration deal earlier this year.

While people close to Trump say he believes he could negotiate a better agreement with the Saudis if he were to win back the White House, the former president is also not looking to get involved or actively work to thwart any sort of normalization deal under Biden, the people said.

“For Trump this potential deal is not top of mind at all,” said a source close to Trump, adding that he should stay focused on inflation, the economy, and crime. “I wouldn’t advise him to come out on this. I just don’t think the dynamics are there.”

Trump and his team are also aware that any attempt to hinder negotiations between the Biden administration and foreign leaders would be a violation of the Logan Act, a second person close to Trump told CNN.

‘Time is running out’

Trump’s call with MBS did not go unnoticed in the White House, two US officials said, though they made clear there has been no evidence it affected what have been months of conversations between Biden’s envoys and their Saudi counterparts. The New York Times first reported the call on April 3.

Graham informed Biden officials of the call between MBS and Trump and says they understand why he wants to keep Trump in the loop.

“They understand the role I’m playing with Trump,” says Graham.  “They’re very willing to give him his fair share of credit for this.”

Trump has met with a series of foreign leaders in recent weeks, and despite the belief held by some inside the administration that MBS would clearly prefer Trump back in the White House, there has been no indication Trump’s rematch with Biden in this year’s presidential election has undercut the current effort, according to the two US officials.

That’s not to say there’s an easy path ahead. With the election looming and the region engulfed by turmoil over Israel’s war in Gaza, the window of opportunity is rapidly shrinking, people involved in the negotiations told CNN.

“Time is running out,” said a former Biden administration official. “A framework announcement for how it could look and Biden doing this in a lame duck session is possible, even getting a framework together would be great. But this can’t happen before November.”

Yet Graham remains optimistic, and says he thinks the best path to ever getting anything done would be under Biden sometime in the next few months.

Graham told CNN that he’s doing everything he can to ensure the deal is sealed under Biden, in part because he thinks Biden would have a better shot at drumming up Democratic support in Congress.

“I think President Trump understands this is building on what he did,” Graham told CNN. “If a Republican [president] did this deal, I think most Democrats would say no … I just think Biden could twist arms here.”

Finding a partner in Graham

President Biden’s administration entered office pledging a shift in the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, with Biden leveling sharp criticism toward MBS over his alleged role in the murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Still, Biden’s top envoys for the region have maintained a constant dialogue with, and regular presence in, Riyadh. For all of the ways Biden sought to diverge from Trump’s approach to the region, the prospect of expanding one of Trump’s cornerstone foreign policy achievements became a central focus.

Graham, meanwhile, is in a unique position to help given his close relationships in the region, not just with MBS but with Israel Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and key war member minister Benny Gantz.

Last spring, Graham began debriefing Biden administration officials after his meetings with foreign leaders in the Middle East, according to multiple sources familiar with the talks. Graham told CNN he has met directly with Biden regarding a normalization agreement at least twice, and that he speaks regularly with the President’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, as well as on occasion with special envoy Amos Hochstein and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

By last fall, Biden’s team was getting close to nailing down the terms of a deal with Israel and Saudi Arabia, something US officials argue was weeks away from being finalized. Then Hamas attacked Israel on October 7 and everything changed.

Since then, the deal has become more central to the administration’s long term policy in the region. But also far more difficult to achieve. In the past several months, the shape of the agreement with Riyadh has shifted, according to US officials.

While there was always a significant Palestinian component tied to any agreement, the necessity of an explicit path to a two-state solution has been made clear since Oct. 7. Questions remain about what Saudi would want in terms of specific language on Palestinians, but sources say the Saudis want a clear pathway for the Palestinians not just a commitment towards that end. Still, the issue remains one of the thorniest sticking points.

Saudi Arabia also wants to sign what would be a major defense pact with the US, giving the kingdom significant security assurances should they be attacked. There are several levels of security agreements they could enter into, the most significant of which would be akin to the mutual defense agreement in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.

There is also a strong desire to include in the deal the Saudis’ long-held push to secure assistance in developing its own civilian nuclear power program.

A spokesperson for the Saudi embassy in the US told CNN that the country’s position is that establishing relations with Israel is contingent on ending the war in Gaza, recognition of a Palestinian state and establishing an irrevocable and irreversible pathway towards a two-state solution and establishing a Palestinian state.

Regarding a timetable, the kingdom is working diligently to achieve these goals as soon as possible, the spokesperson said.

It’s a lot to get done in a short amount of time, but In Graham’s view, there may never be another moment to get such a wide-ranging deal across the finish line.

“This is a moment in world history, I will do anything I can to get this deal done because it does put Iran in a box, it gives some hope to the Palestinians, and it resets the Mideast in all the right ways,” said Graham. “This is the moment here. … I think all boats rise, Biden will get credit. Trump will get credit. I will get credit. Jake would. All of us. All boats rise. And when you look back on what did you do with your time in the Senate, this would be a worthy use of my time.”

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