Saudi Arabia fumes, claiming US suggested Riyadh could accept normalization without a ceasefire

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

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily press briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, January 23, 2024. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP)
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily press briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, January 23, 2024. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP)

Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry has issued a firey statement rejecting what it claims was US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby’s suggestion that Riyadh is prepared to normalize relations before there is a ceasefire in Gaza and without progress toward Palestinian statehood.

Kirby was asked during a press briefing earlier today whether securing a hostage deal and a Saudi normalization agreement are part of the same US effort. Kirby responded that they’re two distinct tracks, and noted that the US has held “positive” talks with Riyadh on the matter both before and after October 7.

Saudi officials have publicly acknowledged their willingness to normalize relations with Israel, even after October 7, but they’ve stressed — as has US Secretary of State Antony Blinken — that no deal can be reached until there is a ceasefire in Gaza and that it must include the creation of an irreversible pathway toward a Palestinian state.

Either because it took Kirby’s separation of the hostage talks from the normalization negotiations to mean that Riyadh would be prepared to establish relations before there is a truce or because it felt the White House spokesman was overly optimistic in his characterization of the talks, Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry decides to call him out.

“Regarding the discussions between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America on the Arab-Israeli peace process, and in light of what has been attributed to the US National Security [Council] spokesperson, the ministry of foreign affairs affirms that the position of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always been steadfast on the Palestinian issue and the necessity that the brotherly Palestinian people obtain their legitimate rights,” the statement asserts.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on February 5, 2024. (Saudi foreign ministry/ X)

“The kingdom has communicated its firm position to the US administration that there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognized on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, and that the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip stops and all Israeli occupation forces withdraw from the Gaza Strip,” the statement adds.

While Saudi officials in recent months have moved away from their long-held position that a fully implemented two-state solution be a precondition to normalization with Israel, they hadn’t yet specified the kind of more provisional steps it would accept in exchange for an agreement with Israel, sufficing with more vague statements regarding improving Palestinian livelihood or creating a pathway toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Recognition of a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 lines appeared to be the most detailed stipulation that Riyadh has offered in recent months. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has all but rejected a two-state solution and a large percentage of Israelis would oppose a framework based on the pre-1967 lines, the Saudi statement notably refrains from specifically demanding that Israel be the one to recognize an independent Palestinian state, instead placing the onus on members of the UN Security Council.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, front left, attends a meeting with Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Secretary General of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Hussein al-Sheikh, during a day of meetings about the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Amman, Jordan, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool photo via AP)

“The kingdom reiterates its call to the permanent members of the UN Security Council that have not yet recognized the Palestinian state, to expedite the recognition of the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, so that the Palestinian people can obtain their legitimate rights and so that a comprehensive and just peace is achieved for all,” the foreign ministry adds.

The statement is issued just one day after Blinken met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, in a possible indication that the sit-down did not go well.

Still, by directing the Palestinian state recognition demand at Security Council members, such as the US, rather than at Israel, Riyadh can be seen as presenting Washington with a way around the Netanyahu government’s rejection of a two-state solution.

It also comes less than a week after UK Foreign Minister David Cameron said his government was considering recognizing an independent Palestinian state. Days later, the Axios news site reported that the US was weighing the same step after long rejecting it on the basis that the move should come after Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to a two-state solution.

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