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Kushner set to travel to Saudi Arabia, with eyes on Israel normalization

Outgoing White House adviser said seeking additional Mideast wins before Biden’s January inauguration; will meet crown prince in Neom, where Netanyahu, Pompeo met him last week

White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner during a meeting in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, DC on October 23, 2017. Right: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with Lebanon's Christian Maronite patriarch on November 14, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photos by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images; Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)
White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner during a meeting in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, DC on October 23, 2017. Right: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with Lebanon's Christian Maronite patriarch on November 14, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photos by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images; Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

White House adviser Jared Kushner will travel to Saudi Arabia this week, in an apparent last-ditch effort to broker a normalization deal between the kingdom and Israel, according to a report on Sunday.

Kushner will meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Neom — the Red Sea city where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week held a secret rendezvous with the prince, alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

It was the first known visit to Saudi Arabia by an Israeli leader, but the talks on Iran and possible normalization reportedly yielded no substantial progress.

A US official told Reuters on Sunday that Kushner is hoping to orchestrate additional normalization pacts between Israel and Arab states before the January inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden, following his success with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan.

US President Donald Trump talks on a phone call with the leaders of Sudan and Israel, as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, left, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, applaud in the Oval Office of the White House, Oct. 23, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Alex Brandon)

The Trump administration has hoped Saudi Arabia would join the UAE and Bahrain in recognizing Israel and forging diplomatic ties, a move seen as increasingly distant in the wake of Joe Biden’s election as US president. But Saudi leaders have hitherto indicated that Israeli-Palestinian peace will have to come first.

Kushner will also travel to Qatar during his trip. He will be accompanied by Middle East envoys Avi Berkowitz and Brian Hook and chief executive of the US International Development Finance Corporation, Adam Boehler, according to the report.

During the trip, Kushner will also likely seek to heal a years-long rift between Qatar and other Arab states. Bahrain, along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, have imposed an air, naval and land embargo on Qatar since June 2017 over their insistence Doha is too close to Iran and radical Islamist groups. Qatar denies the charges.

Kushner’s visit will come in the shadow of the assassination of a top Iran nuclear scientist on Friday blamed on Israel. Saudi Arabia and Israel are both sworn enemies of Iran, sharing concerns over Tehran’s nuclear program and regional influence.

Saudi Arabia said waiting for Biden

Saudi Arabia reportedly pulled back from a normalization deal with Israel due to Biden’s election win this month and the prince’s desire to build ties with the incoming US administration.

Bin Salman, son of the 84-year-old King Salman and the kingdom’s de facto ruler, is reluctant “to take the step now, when he could use a deal later to help cement relations with the new American leader,” the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on Friday.

A Saudi government adviser had earlier in the week confirmed the Netanyahu-bin Salman-Pompeo meeting and the trip to the WSJ, saying that the meeting, which had lasted several hours, focused on Iran and the establishment of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Jerusalem, but did not yield substantial agreements.

US Vice President Joe Biden, right, offers his condolences to Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz upon the death of his brother Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 27, 2011. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

Citing Saudi advisers and US officials, the WSJ reported Friday that a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia under the brokerage of the new president, Bin Salman hopes, “could put relations between the Biden administration and Riyadh on surer footing.”

Biden has taken a tougher stance with Riyadh on its human rights record, the war in Yemen, and the 2018 killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The president-elect said in October that the US under his administration would “reassess our relationship” with Riyadh. Last week, Biden said he would punish Saudi leaders over the journalist’s murder.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, L, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive to make a joint statement after meeting in Jerusalem on November 19, 2020. (Maya Alleruzzo / POOL / AFP)

A foreign diplomat in Riyadh cited by Reuters this week suggested that the prospect of normalization was greater under the incoming Biden administration.

“Normalization… is a carrot to get [Biden’s] focus away from other issues, especially human rights,” the diplomat said.

Pompeo had hoped to build on the momentum of the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords which saw Israel formalize ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan, and finalize an agreement with Saudi Arabia but “watched as a potential capstone to the Trump administration’s efforts to reorder the politics of the region and build a bulwark against Iran slipped from his grasp,” according to the WSJ report.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) meets with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Irqah Palace in the capital Riyadh on February 20, 2020. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool/AFP)

Reuters reported on Friday that another reason a deal with Riyadh remained elusive was King Salman and his reported opposition to normalization with Israel without the establishment of a Palestinian state, an analysis also made Thursday by a senior Israeli source cited by Israeli TV.

According to the report, King Salman was kept out of the loop about Netanyahu’s trip to the kingdom for talks with the crown prince.

On Friday night, Israel’s Channel 13 reported that the Saudis have raised three main conditions for a treaty with Israel: the implementation of a major advanced arms deal with the US, the clearing of their name over the killing of Khashoggi, and a genuine Israeli commitment to a two-state solution. The report was not sourced.

Khashoggi’s murder has continued to cast a shadow over the international standing of Bin Salman, whose associates have been sanctioned by the US and the UK for their alleged involvement in the brutal killing. The crown prince has denied ordering the killing and the kingdom had put at least 11 people on trial for the killing, some said to be close to the prince.

The kingdom has also been angling for a new arms deal with the US, following last year’s $8.1 billion agreement that bypassed Congress and raised the ire of lawmakers from both sides.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration formally notified Congress that it intends to sell 50 stealth F-35 fighter jets and other weapons to the United Arab Emirates as part of a broader arms deal worth over $23 billion. Pompeo said he had authorized the sale in keeping with the administration’s Middle East peace efforts, and directly tied the arms sale to the UAE’s decision to normalize ties with Israel.

The arms deal was controversial in Israel and officials had previously expressed some concern about an F-35 sale because it could affect the balance of military power in the region and Netanyahu had denied he gave approval to the sale as part of the treaty with the UAE. This has been publicly questioned by Gantz and outright disputed by opposition party members.

Israel believes Saudi Arabia and Qatar are interested in similar arms deals with the US.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly predicted that Saudi Arabia and up to nine other countries were readying to normalize relations with Israel, following the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan.

Bahrain normalizing ties suggested at least a Saudi acquiescence to the idea, as the island kingdom relies on Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has also approved flights between Israel and its new Gulf friends passing over its territory.

Israel has long had clandestine ties with Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab states that have strengthened in recent years, as they have confronted a shared threat in Iran.

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