Meeting US national security adviser, Netanyahu stresses bid to build Saudi ties

In 1st Jerusalem visit since new government sworn in, Jake Sullivan notes shared ‘challenges and opportunities,’ mum on Biden administration’s concern over Israeli domestic issues

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met Thursday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, in the first meeting between a senior member of the Biden administration and the newly reinstated premier.

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said that Netanyahu and Sullivan discussed “the next steps to deepen the Abraham Accords and widen the circle of peace, with an emphasis on a breakthrough with Saudi Arabia.”

Riyadh has long asserted that it will not normalize ties with Israel without a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. US ties with Saudi Arabia, which are crucial for such an agreement, have been battered due to the kingdom’s human rights record.

While the Saudis have softened toward Israel in recent years, allowing Israeli flights to use the country’s airspace, the new hardline Netanyahu government is unlikely to provide a welcoming atmosphere for any such deal.

A statement from the PMO also said that Netanyahu thanked Sullivan for Biden’s commitment not to allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, and said that recent Palestinian actions against Israel on the international stage “are an attack on Israel which require us to respond.” There was no immediate US readout of the meeting.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan sit down in Jerusalem with other Israeli and US officials on January 19, 2023. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

While the Biden administration has condemned Ramallah’s successful effort at the UN to have the International Court of Justice weigh in on Israeli policy in the territories, it also expressed disapproval at the sanctions Israel levied in response.

In public comments at the outset of their meeting, both figures made fairly boilerplate remarks about the importance and strength of the US-Israel relationship and the issues on the agenda, without appearing to reference the tensions between the White House and the new hard-right government.

Netanyahu welcomed Sullivan to Israel, saying that “I know how much [Biden] trusts you in matters of national security — and you should know that we see you as a trusted partner in matters of our shared security, and of course, advancing peace.”

Sullivan told Netanyahu that he was sent to Jerusalem by Biden to discuss “both the challenges but also the real opportunities that our two countries have to work toward a better future.”

Following their remarks, the pair sat down for a working meeting in Jerusalem that included Hanegbi as well as US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog, former US ambassador Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, and White House Mideast coordinator Brett McGurk.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Shlomi Amsalem / GPO)

After the meeting, Sullivan met with Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, with the two discussing the Iranian nuclear program. According to the Foreign Ministry, Cohen argued that the only way to change Iran’s behavior is to apply “massive, immediate, and comprehensive pressure” on Tehran.

The foreign minister also urged Sullivan to get the Europeans on board with enhanced sanctions on Iran.

Sullivan also discussed Iran with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and other senior defense officials on Thursday.

“The focus of the meeting was the regional and global threat posed by Iran’s activities, with an emphasis on the activity to achieve nuclear capability and the importance of preparing a response to this threat, alongside harnessing the international community,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

The ministry said Gallant thanked Sullivan for “the US administration’s commitment to Israel’s security.”

Earlier Thursday, Sullivan met one-on-one with Hanegbi as well as with Mossad chief David Barnea to discuss “the strategic challenges” facing both nations.

Israeli and US National Security Advisers Tzahi Hanegbi (right) and Jake Sullivan speak with their UAE and Bahrain counterparts via video from Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Sullivan and Hanegbi were later joined by their Emirati and Bahraini counterparts for a virtual meeting on ways to boost regional cooperation, the White House said.

They discussed addressing the food security crisis through the I2U2 forum made up of Israel, India, the US and the UAE and progress made by the Negev Forum working groups, which met earlier this month in Abu Dhabi. That gathering brought together some 150 officials from Israel, the US, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt to discuss joint projects in the areas of food security and water technology, clean energy, tourism, regional security, healthcare, and education and coexistence.

The White House said an emphasis was also placed during the meeting on the climate crisis as the UAE prepares to host the COP28 conference later this year.

During all of his meetings, “Sullivan recalled that the United States’ longstanding partnership with Israel, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, is built on mutual interests and democratic values,” the White House said.

He also “stressed that the Administration will continue to support the two-state solution, and will discourage policies that endanger its viability. Mr. Sullivan underscored the urgency of avoiding unilateral steps by any party that could inflame tensions on the ground, with special attention to maintaining the historic status quo with respect to the holy places in Jerusalem.”

On Wednesday, Sullivan met in Jerusalem with President Isaac Herzog, kicking off his two days of talks with senior officials in Jerusalem.

A US official told The Times of Israel that the national security adviser was using his meetings to get a better understanding of the new government’s policies regarding the Palestinians and lay out some of the Biden administration’s red lines, from annexation of the West Bank to legalization of wildcat outposts and massive settlement expansion.

In Sullivan’s meeting with Herzog, the two stressed that the bilateral relationship was “a cross-party and cross-government issue,” the president’s office said in an apparent attempt to smooth over political differences between the new Israeli government and Biden’s Democratic party.

Herzog is seen to view his role as somewhat of an intermediary between Netanyahu’s government and the Biden administration, given his relatively more dovish stances on the Palestinians and his longstanding ties with various senior US officials. Wednesday’s meeting was his fourth with Sullivan since the two took on their positions.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan meets with President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, January 18, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that Sullivan would be discussing “deepening normalization between Israel and some Arab states,” though the US has also asserted that such efforts are not to be in lieu of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Preserving the status quo on the Temple Mount will likely be placed high up on the Biden administration’s agenda in meetings with Israeli officials. Kirby said Wednesday that Sullivan would be highlighting the issue on his trip.

Sullivan is also to travel to Ramallah on Thursday afternoon for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report. 

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