Gantz makes quiet visit to Washington amid Saudi normalization talks

Opposition party leader meets with White House security adviser, other top officials, as US works to broker agreement between Jerusalem and Riyadh

Defense Minister Benny Gantz meets with US national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Washington DC, August 26, 2022. (Yossi Mai/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz meets with US national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Washington DC, August 26, 2022. (Yossi Mai/Defense Ministry)

The leader of the opposition National Unity party, Benny Gantz, arrived in Washington on Wednesday to hold quiet meetings with White House officials, as the US works to broker a historic normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Gantz met with White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and other senior US officials, the Walla news site reported, citing two US sources.

The trip was unusual because Gantz’s office did not announce the visit or meetings in advance.

However, following the report, his party confirmed the visit and the meeting with Sullivan.

“The two spoke about advancing the vital security interests of Israel, expanding Israel’s integration in the region and sealing with the threats from Iran and its proxies in the Middle East,” National Unity said.

A White House National Security Council spokesperson also confirmed the meeting on Thursday, saying Sullivan and Gantz “continued discussions on a range of bilateral and regional issues of mutual interest.”

Gantz is a former defense minister and IDF chief of staff and one of the most prominent members of the opposition.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid visited Washington last month, where he met with Biden administration officials and senators to discuss the Saudi agreement and other issues.

Gantz also held undisclosed meetings with US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf last month, Channel 12 reported.

Gantz has said he would not join the coalition to help secure a normalization deal, but would be willing to back an agreement from outside the government.

His visit to Washington comes as the US works to broker a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia that would mark a historic breakthrough for the Jewish state’s Middle East standing.

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, has never recognized Israel and long insisted it would not do so without a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Riyadh did not join the US-brokered Abraham Accords, which saw its Gulf neighbors Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates as well as Morocco establish formal ties with Israel in 2020.

The White House said last week that Saudi and Israeli negotiators were moving toward the outline of a deal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have also both said the sides are moving toward an agreement.

In recent breakthroughs, two Israeli ministers have visited Saudi Arabia in the past week, the first-ever official Israeli visits to the country.

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi (left) and Knesset Economy Committee chairman David Bitan arrive in Saudi Arabia on October 2, 2023. (Communications Ministry)

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi praised the warming relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia on Wednesday at a conference in Riyadh, calling them “blossoming ties.”

On Tuesday, Karhi participated in a morning prayer service, complete with a Torah scroll dedicated to the rulers of the kingdom. The service, which included a quorum, or minyan, of at least 10 men, took place in Karhi’s hotel and included three Jews who were in Riyadh but were not part of Karhi’s delegation.

As part of the normalization negotiations, Riyadh is bargaining hard for security guarantees from Washington as well as assistance with a civilian nuclear program that would have uranium enrichment capacity.

The Palestinians have warned that they must be taken into account in any deal and remain a sticking point.

In interviews, Netanyahu has indicated that he would be willing to make concessions for the Palestinians, though it is unclear what precisely that would constitute. The prime minister’s far-right coalition partners would seemingly make such concessions difficult to execute.

The steps proposed by the Palestinians in a potential deal have included US backing for recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations; the US reopening its consulate in Jerusalem that historically served Palestinians; the scrapping of congressional legislation characterizing the PLO as a terror organization; the transfer of West Bank territory from Israeli to Palestinian control; and the demolition of illegal outposts in the West Bank.

On Wednesday, 20 Democratic senators penned a letter to Biden in which they expressed their general support for the normalization effort but stressed their concern over Saudi security and nuclear demands while urging the Biden administration to use the deal to advance a two-state solution.

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