As U.S. pushes for Saudi-Israeil normalization, major hurdles remain


TEL AVIV — The United States and Saudi Arabia are in the early stages of negotiations aimed at normalizing relations between Riyadh and Israel, an Israeli official said this week.

“We know that the two sides are very serious on this issue,” Israeli national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi told a group of international reporters, referring to the United States and Saudi Arabia, adding that Israel has been “intimately” updated on the advancement of the talks and expects a draft of a deal as early as December.

The establishment of formal ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel could radically alter Middle Eastern geopolitics and would be a major foreign policy win for President Biden as he prepares for his 2024 reelection campaign. Though the two countries have historically been bitter foes, they have in recent years quietly cooperated on security and commercial matters in a shared effort to counter Iran.

“There’s a rapprochement underway,” Biden said at a campaign event in late July, a day after his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, arrived for a second official visit to Saudi Arabia.

But serious obstacles stand in the way of any prospective deal. Hanegbi made clear that Israel was not prepared to make meaningful concessions on the issue of Palestinian statehood, long assumed to be a precondition of a regional rapprochement. And Riyadh is seeking significant security guarantees from Washington, which could risk further entangling the United States in Middle Eastern conflicts.

On Wednesday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby cautioned against media reports that have “left some people with the impression that discussions are farther along … than they actually are.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made Saudi normalization a central theme of his election campaign last year, promising to build on the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords and “expand the circle of peace.” In 2020, Israel established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. The American hope, so far unfulfilled, is that other Middle Eastern countries would follow suit. If Saudi Arabia signs on, the thinking goes, the rest of the region will follow.

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But Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to be driving a hard bargain, seeking U.S. munitions and a NATO-style collective security pact with Washington. Such an agreement would oblige the United States to respond militarily in the event of an attack on Saudi soil. As recently as 2019, two of the monarchy’s major oil fields were struck by the Houthis, an Iranian-backed rebel group in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia also wants help developing a civilian nuclear program, though there are disagreements over what role the United States might play. Riyadh wants to enrich its own uranium fuel, while Washington would prefer a deal similar to the one it has with the UAE, which imports reactor fuel. While the Saudis have said they would prefer nuclear power cooperation with the United States, there are others potentially willing to help, including rivals such as China and Russia.

Less clear is what Riyadh would be prepared to accept on behalf of the Palestinians. Israeli officials have signaled that they would not be willing to meet Saudi requirements for Palestinian statehood. Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, reasserted that demand in June, even as he said that normalizing relations with Israel would be “in the interest of the region.” Notably, Faisal did not refer to a Palestinian state with 1967 borders, which was the basis of a failed Saudi peace initiative in 2002.

Israel has also indicated that it would not compromise on the final status of Jerusalem. Palestinians claim occupied East Jerusalem as their capital.

“The Palestinian issue will not be an obstacle to peace with Saudi Arabia,” Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told the Saudi-owned news site Elaph on Sunday, adding that Israel would take steps to improve the Palestinian economy. “This peace will change the relationship between the Jewish and Islamic worlds.”

Biden-Netanyahu spat bursts into full view

The shuttle diplomacy to Saudi Arabia by Biden officials in recent weeks coincides with a chill in U.S.-Israeli relations. The administration has been unusually pointed in its criticism of Netanyahu’s contentious plans to overhaul Israel’s judiciary and has repeatedly condemned his hard-line coalition partners. Among them are Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a former settler activist who has aggressively advocated for the annexation of the West Bank, the territory that Palestinians envision as part of their future state.

Smotrich has funneled billions of shekels toward expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territory, which would render the two-state solution — a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy — effectively impossible. On Tuesday, Smotrich halted the transfer of hundreds of millions of shekels earmarked for Palestinian towns in Israel, claiming in a Facebook post that the money “often goes to criminal and terrorist organizations.”

A string of major Israeli military raids in the West Bank and the emergence of new Palestinian militant groups have made the past year one of the bloodiest in the region in decades.

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“For normalization with Saudi Arabia, Israel would not pay the price of Israel’s security,” Hanegbi said. He added that a deal would enable further Saudi investment in Palestinian infrastructure projects.

But Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said in a briefing last week that “economic benefits are no longer sufficient for the Palestinian people.” Statehood, he said, was still Palestinians’ primary goal.

He ruled out the possibility of reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks “under the current Israeli government” but said the Palestinian Authority welcomed the involvement of Saudi Arabia, as well as China, “which wants to increase its presence in our region to reflect its political weight.”

China brokered a détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March, which experts say was a wake-up call for the United States, highlighting its diminished role in the Middle East.

“Israel saw that once the Chinese got involved, it compelled the U.S. to get involved,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat and adviser to prime ministers.

By making a concerted push for a Saudi-Israeli deal, Pinkas said, Washington may also be hoping to blunt the influence of Israel’s far right, potentially forcing the government to backtrack on its judicial overhaul and slow the expansion of settlements.

“No one’s expecting a Palestinian state next week; no one can deliver on that,” Pinkas said. “But talks of this deal might serve the purpose of holding a mirror up to Netanyahu, to try to get him to stop.”

Any agreement would need to be approved by a two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans would likely be averse to delivering Biden a monumental pre-election win.

While Biden has supported the efforts of Sullivan, his national security adviser, and Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s Middle East coordinator, to “see what is in the realm of the possible,” Kirby said Wednesday, “the bottom line is there is no agreed-to set of negotiations. There is no agreed-to framework to codify normalization.”

“There are a number of matters that are under discussion between the three countries, and we’ll continue to work towards that aim, recognizing that it’s a long and difficult process,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller added Wednesday, noting that reports of preliminary agreements “vastly overstate where things stand.”

DeYoung reported from Washington.


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