Lapid, Gantz said to reject possibility of joining Netanyahu coalition for Saudi deal

Yesh Atid head and National Unity leader Benny Gantz signal they could support potential normalization agreement from opposition

Yesh Atid head MK Yair Lapid (left) and National Unity head MK Benny Gantz in the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yesh Atid head MK Yair Lapid (left) and National Unity head MK Benny Gantz in the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition party leaders said a potentially developing normalization deal with Saudi Arabia would not be enough to bring them into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

The Walla news site reported that Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid and National Unity leader Benny Gantz have indicated they could, however, support such a deal from outside the government.

“We won’t enter a Netanyahu government. If there’s a deal with Saudi Arabia that represents Israel’s security interests, we’ll back it from the outside,” a source close to Lapid was quoted saying.

Gantz had previously already said he would not join Netanyahu to help push the normalization agreement over the finish line. At an event in early June, Gantz acknowledged that Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners would likely form obstacles to Saudi demands, and said his National Unity faction would not join the government but would act as “strategic backup” from the opposition benches.
According to reporting Saturday and Sunday by The Times of Israel and The New York Times, any deal with the Saudis is expected to require significant Israeli concessions on the Palestinian front, moves unlikely to be backed by far-right elements in the Netanyahu government.

Opposition leaders have repeatedly stated that they will not serve in a coalition headed by Netanyahu due to his ongoing corruption trial, “but questions have come up in discussions with Americans about whether the leaders might relent if it meant establishing diplomatic relations with the Saudis,” The New York Times reported Saturday.

However, according to Walla, opposition members are expected to approach any deal with Saudi Arabia with a jaundiced eye, fearing it could include concessions that will erode Israel’s regional military advantage, such as okaying a Saudi nuclear program.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Opposition members lodged largely ineffective objections to a normalization deal with the UAE in 2020 that included an Israeli sign-off on advanced arms sales to Abu Dhabi.

Netanyahu has long sought what is seen as an elusive normalization deal with the Saudis, repeatedly describing it as one of the top priorities of his new government and one that could lead to an end to both the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the prospects of a normalization deal appear increasingly unlikely due to the influential far-right elements in Netanyahu’s government. The Times report on Saturday, citing an Israeli official, said that a normalization deal would require “significant concessions” to the Palestinians that are unlikely to be approved by the current hardline coalition and that Netanyahu may be required to seek the formation of a unity government.

According to the report, it is Israel’s understanding that Saudi Arabia would not be satisfied with a promise from Netanyahu that he will not annex the West Bank, but instead would require “significant action on the ground.” Such action would be opposed by members of the far-right, religious coalition.

Netanyahu’s coalition partners, particularly the far-right Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam factions, are ideologically opposed to advancing Palestinian sovereignty, which may force the premier to look for alternate allies to meet potential Saudi demands for normalizing ties with Israel.

Other demands from Riyadh have been said to include a mutual defense pact with the US, similar to NATO, whereby if Saudi Arabia were attacked, Washington would be committed to come to its defense. Many US lawmakers and officials are reportedly very uneasy about the prospect of such an agreement.

In addition, Riyadh wants to develop a civilian nuclear program, a demand long opposed by Washington and Jerusalem.

Citing the unnamed Israeli official, the report said that while Riyadh had in the past not necessarily demanded “a clear Israeli move toward the Palestinians,” King Salman, who has in general given up significant control to Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, intervened in the discussions on a potential deal to ensure that the caveat was included.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes US President Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)

As previously reported in The Times of Israel, Saudi Arabia also wants the ability to purchase more advanced weaponry from Washington such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antiballistic missile defense system, which could be used to combat Iran’s increasing missile arsenal.

In exchange, the US is looking for Riyadh to offer an unprecedentedly large aid package to Palestinian institutions in the West Bank, significantly roll back its growing relationship with China, and help bring an end to the civil war in Yemen.

The Times report noted that US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has visited Saudi Arabia twice in less than three months, positing that this could be a sign of progress. It said that US officials who were in Jeddah on Thursday “expressed cautious optimism that progress could be made as diplomats on the ground continue talking.”

On Friday, US President Joe Biden hinted at possible progress in the potential Jerusalem-Riyadh deal.

Speaking to contributors to his 2024 reelection campaign at an event in Maine, Biden said, “There’s a rapprochement maybe under way.” He did not give further details.

On Sunday, Netanyahu announced a NIS 100 billion ($27 billion) plan to link the northern city of Kiryat Shmona to the Red Sea resort of Eilat, in the far south by rail, adding that the line “will be able in the future to link Israel to Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula.”

“We’re working on that too,” he said

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