20 Democrats write to Biden with reservations over deal

Israel looking to limit scope of Palestinian component of Saudi normalization deal

As Biden advisers make another trip to Riyadh for talks with MBS, Netanyahu’s aides dismiss Abbas as ‘mayor of Ramallah’ and insist he won’t dictate agreement’s terms

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

A pair of US President Joe Biden’s top advisers paid another visit to Riyadh last week to advance negotiations toward a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked to limit the scope of the Palestinian component of the deal.

White House Middle East czar Brett McGurk and energy adviser Amos Hochstein met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, and other Saudi officials, the Axios news site reported Wednesday. The White House confirmed the trip but insisted that it was part of McGurk’s and Hochstein’s routine travel and that they discussed a host of issues in addition to a potential normalization deal.

However, it was McGurk’s second visit to Riyadh in September — a month that saw Biden and Netanyahu discuss the potential deal on the UN General Assembly sidelines and MBS tell Fox News that the high-stakes agreement was getting closer every day.

A number of sticking points remain, as the US defense guarantees and support for a civilian nuclear program sought by Saudi Arabia are sure to roil Democrats in Congress given Riyadh’s human rights record. The Biden administration is hoping that a significant Palestinian component that advances a two-state solution will be enough to placate progressives to back the deal, which could well require the approval of two-thirds of the Senate.

But that component has become a point of tension between the US and Israel, whose hardline government is overwhelmingly made up of lawmakers ideologically opposed to Palestinian statehood.

The Haaretz daily reported Wednesday that a senior Israeli official close to Netanyahu has been telling Biden administration officials that the “mayor of Ramallah won’t determine the details” of a normalization deal — a scornful reference to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

US National Security Council Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and State Department energy envoy Amos Hochstein. (AP/collage)

Israeli officials have argued that MBS is not seeking to boost the Palestinians’ political sovereignty, pointing to the Saudi crown prince’s comments to Fox News in which he said he was aiming to “ease the life of the Palestinians.” Three officials also told The Times of Israel last week that Riyadh is quietly setting aside the Arab Peace Initiative that it sponsored more than 20 years ago and is readying for the possibility of normalizing relations with Israel without first securing the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But MBS also said in the Fox News interview that “the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part.” Saudi officials have also assured their Palestinian counterparts that they won’t abandon them in the normalization effort. Riyadh has also appointed an ambassador to Palestine and is co-chairing an initiative with the European Union aimed at reviving the peace process.

Netanyahu has said publicly that the Palestinians should be part of an agreement but that they should not have veto power over the deal.

Privately, Netanyahu and top adviser Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer are aiming to limit the Palestinian component to financial aid for the cash-strapped PA, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel last month that they’re merely pushing for a mutual cessation of unilateral actions in the context of the normalization negotiations, in addition to other “irreversible steps” that can help create a “diplomatic horizon” for a future deal. Those steps include the Israeli transfer of West Bank territory to the PA’s control, razing illegal outposts in the West Bank, limiting strategic settlement activity and a general commitment to a two-state solution.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center), US President Joe Biden (right) and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman hold hands before the start of a session at the G20 summit in New Delhi on September 9, 2023. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN / POOL / AFP)

Any of those steps alone could well be too much for Netanyahu, as National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir warned that the coalition’s two far-right parties would bolt if any concessions are made to the Palestinians.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is slated to visit Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia in two weeks in hopes of advancing the issue further, but US officials have reiterated that a deal is still far from being signed.

A general framework has been outlined for what each side will have to give but exact details still need to be hammered out, administration officials have said.

Talks are expected to continue through December, with the White House hoping to have a deal ready to present to Congress by January, according to officials familiar with the matter.

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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