National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said on Monday that he has been in regular contact with Palestinian officials since assuming his post, and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is open to significant concessions to Ramallah in the context of a Saudi normalization deal.
“I have been conducting a dialogue with them in the name of the prime minister for eight months,” he said, in a rare admission of close contact between the two sides.
Speaking at the second day of the annual conference of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism Policy (ICT) at Reichman University in Herzliya, Hanegbi said that the conversations are taking place as part of a five-way dialogue with Jordan, Egypt, and the US. The parties met in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh earlier this year.
“We are trying to reach agreements on security matters, so they will take responsibility for the matters that touch on their lives, Area A, and so that the IDF won’t have to enter refugee camps in Jenin and Nablus instead of them,” he said.
In July, the IDF embarked on a major two-day operation in Jenin against the local Islamic Jihad branch and smaller armed groups.
Hanegbi said that senior officials on both sides are speaking in an “open manner about what they want to receive from the other side.”
He added that the talks are bearing fruit, including the fact that Arab countries are “actively interested in the success of the talks.”
Turning to the prospects of a deal with Riyadh, Hanegbi said that “it is important that the Palestinians are part of the process.”
Israel will likely be asked to offer significant concessions to the Palestinians that could advance a two-state solution — a pill that will be difficult for Netanyahu’s hardline government to swallow.
“I believe that there is a change in the Palestinians’ approach,” Hanegbi said. “They are very active. They are speaking with the Americans, they are speaking with the Saudis, they are speaking with us about what the ‘significant Palestinian component’ of a deal could be.”
Hanegbi said Israel “supports a significant Palestinian component in the agreement with Saudi Arabia,” while clarifying that Jerusalem would not accept any measures that put its security at risk.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich did not take well to the remark, telling attendees at an event for his far-right Religious Zionism party later Monday, “I read the quote by Hanegbi, and I don’t know who he represents. He certainly does not represent most of the coalition members and, as far as I know, not the Prime Minister either.”
It is unlikely that Hanegbi would be holding meetings with Palestinian officials without Netanyahu’s knowledge but Smotrich’s point that a majority of the coalition would oppose major concessions to the Palestinians in the context of a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia could indeed hold water, given the ruling-bloc’s opposition to a two-state solution.
Speaking after Hanegbi at the conference, National Unity party chief Benny Gantz also addressed the concessions to Palestinians: “I would advise all of us to wait and see the proposed deal, and only then express an opinion on the question of whether those are concessions or rather steps that preserve the security and national needs of the State of Israel.”
The opposition figure also expressed criticism of how the Netanyahu government has handled the delicate diplomacy around a Saudi deal.
“The process worries me,” said Gantz, a partner in a previous Netanyahu government. “The fact that Israel has shifted from being a partner to an observer, and the fact there are radical elements in our government that might sabotage the agreement.”
At the same time, he pledged that his party would support an agreement if he deems it in Israel’s interests.
Addressing the ongoing conversations between the US and Saudis about a normalization deal with Israel and a long-term security pact between Washington and Riyadh, Gantz called it “a great opportunity to mitigate terror.”
“It can be at the forefront of the regional architecture we already began building — against the Iranian axis as well,” he continued. “An agreement that will strengthen the moderate forces in [the terrirories], weaken terror elements in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon, is a good agreement for Israel.”
Hanegbi also sounded careful but hopeful notes about the process, saying that talks are slowly turning into “the outline of an agreement.”
“It is no longer a shot in the dark,” he said, “but discussions about practical goals, in which all sides identify the win-win for them.”
Turning to the newly announced US-backed plan to build a rail and shipping corridor linking India with the Middle East, Israel and Europe, Hanegbi said that conversations on the ambitious plan between Jerusalem and its partners in Europe and the US have taken place daily.
“We didn’t speak about it because it wasn’t clear it would take shape,” he said.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Saturday that the transportation project is not seen as a “precursor” to a potential normalization deal but he characterized Israel’s inclusion as “significant.”
“Without Israel, there is no ability to translate this entire story into action, because they have to go through Haifa port,” said Hanegbi.
“I can’t say what this project means about the future, but the moment [Saudi Crown Prince] MBS signs a document that mentions Israel, and says that this whole story will be implemented through Israel, then I assume that means that we must examine this deeply,” he added.
At the same time, said Hanegbi, Israel can only watch as an interested observer as the Saudis and Americans try to reach an agreement between them, without which no imminent normalization deal is possible.