ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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Fuming, Saudi Arabia claims US suggested normalization could come without ceasefire

Riyadh says it ‘communicated its firm position,’ after US defense spokesman called hostage deal and normalization ‘distinct tracks’ and said ‘positive’ talks had been held

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing at the the White House in Washington, on January 31, 2024. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing at the the White House in Washington, on January 31, 2024. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry issued a stern statement Tuesday rejecting what it claimed was US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby’s suggestion that Riyadh is prepared to normalize relations before there is a ceasefire in Gaza and without progress toward Palestinian statehood.

Kirby was asked during a press briefing earlier in the day whether securing a hostage deal and a Saudi normalization agreement are part of the same US effort. Kirby responded that they’re two distinct tracks, and noted that the US has held “positive” talks with Riyadh on the matter both before and after October 7.

Saudi officials have publicly acknowledged their willingness to normalize relations with Israel, even after October 7, but they’ve stressed — as has US Secretary of State Antony Blinken — that no deal can be reached until there is a ceasefire in Gaza and that it must include the creation of an irreversible pathway toward a Palestinian state.

Either because Kirby’s separation of the hostage talks from the normalization negotiations could be understood to mean that Riyadh would be prepared to establish relations before there is a truce, or because the White House spokesman was overly optimistic in his characterization of the talks, Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry decided to call him out.

“Regarding the discussions between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America on the Arab-Israeli peace process, and in light of what has been attributed to the US National Security [Council] spokesperson, the ministry of foreign affairs affirms that the position of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always been steadfast on the Palestinian issue and the necessity that the brotherly Palestinian people obtain their legitimate rights,” the statement asserted.

“The kingdom has communicated its firm position to the US administration that there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognized on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, and that the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip stops and all Israeli occupation forces withdraw from the Gaza Strip,” the statement added.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on February 5, 2024. (Saudi foreign ministry/ X)

While Saudi officials in recent months have moved away from their long-held position that a fully implemented two-state solution is a precondition to normalization with Israel, they hadn’t yet specified the kind of more provisional steps they would accept in exchange for an agreement with Israel, sufficing with statements regarding improving Palestinian livelihood or creating a pathway toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Recognition of a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 lines appeared to be the most detailed stipulation that Riyadh has offered in recent months. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has all but rejected a two-state solution and a large percentage of Israelis would oppose a framework based on the pre-1967 lines, the Saudi statement notably refrained from specifically demanding that Israel be the one to recognize an independent Palestinian state, instead placing the onus on members of the UN Security Council.

“The kingdom reiterates its call to the permanent members of the UN Security Council that have not yet recognized the Palestinian state, to expedite the recognition of the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, so that the Palestinian people can obtain their legitimate rights and so that a comprehensive and just peace is achieved for all,” the Saudi foreign ministry added.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives at Ben Gurion Airport, February 6, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool)

The statement was issued just one day after Blinken met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, in a possible indication that the sit-down did not go well.

Still, by directing the demand for Palestinian state recognition at Security Council members, such as the US, rather than at Israel, Riyadh can be seen as presenting Washington with a way around the Netanyahu government’s rejection of a two-state solution.

It also came less than a week after UK Foreign Minister David Cameron said his government was considering recognizing an independent Palestinian state. Days later, the Axios news site reported that the US was weighing the same step after having long rejected it on the basis that the move should come after Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to a two-state solution.

Blinken will meet Wednesday with Netanyahu, IDF chief of staff Herzi Halevi, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and President Isaac Herzog.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, arrives for a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on February 5, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The meetings come a day after Hamas submitted its response to a framework for a hostage deal proposed by Qatar last month, appearing to maintain its demand for a permanent ceasefire, a nonstarter for Israel, which has vowed to destroy the terror group.

Blinken is in the midst of his fifth Mideast diplomacy tour since the start of the war, which was sparked by Hamas’s terror onslaught that killed some 1,200 Israelis and saw another 253 people taken hostage.

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