ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Officials: PM agreed not to launch major attack on Hezbollah

PM said to reject US plan for Saudi normalization in return for path to Palestinian statehood

NBC report says administration looking past Netanyahu to try to achieve its regional goals, but American officials tell ToI that Biden is still seeking to work with the premier

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 9, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 9, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly rejected a proposal from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that would have seen Saudi Arabia normalize relations with Israel in exchange for Jerusalem agreeing to provide the Palestinians with a pathway toward statehood.

Netanyahu told Blinken during his visit to Israel last week that he wasn’t prepared to make a deal that allows for a Palestinian state, NBC News reported Wednesday, citing three unnamed senior US officials.

Blinken responded that Hamas cannot be removed through military means alone and that a failure by Israeli leaders to recognize this will lead to history repeating itself, a US official told The Times of Israel, confirming this detail from the NBC report.

The top American diplomat came to Netanyahu with the proposal after he received commitments from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and four other Arab leaders to help fund the reconstruction of Gaza after the war and support the return of a reformed PA to the Strip, NBC news said.

Bin Salman also told Blinken he was prepared to normalize relations with Israel as part of rebuilding the Gaza Strip after the Israel-Hamas war, two US officials have told The Times of Israel, noting that he indeed is conditioning that deal on Israeli steps toward Palestinian sovereignty. However, the officials noted this condition falls well short of an expectation that Israel agree to the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state.

NBC reported that the only request to which Netanyahu agreed was for Israel not to launch a major attack against Hezbollah in Lebanon. US officials who spoke with The Times of Israel confirmed that agreement.

They noted, however, that Israel also agreed to another major US request — that it allow a team of UN officials into Gaza to carry out an assessment regarding the conditions required for Palestinians to be able to return to their homes in the northern Strip.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, second left, during his week-long trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East, in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

NBC cited three administration officials who claimed the administration was looking past Netanyahu to try and achieve its goals in the region, with one of them telling the network that the premier “will not be there forever.” However, two US officials told The Times of Israel that as a matter of policy, the US was not actively planning for a post-Netanyahu era and was still seeking to work with the current premier, who has not spoken by phone with US President Joe Biden for 25 days.

Blinken did, however, hold private meetings with other members of the war cabinet, including Minister Benny Gantz, who is seen as a potential successor to Netanyahu, as well as Opposition Leader Yair Lapid.

One of the senior administration officials told NBC that Biden’s hopes of reshaping the Middle East after the war are completely linked to the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state, which means he will likely have to wait until there is a different government in Israel.

The NBC report came a day after Blinken publicly hinted at normalization with Saudi Arabia if Israel agrees to moves aimed at advancing the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. Visiting Davos, Blinken said there was a “new equation” in the Middle East in which Israel’s Arab and Muslim neighbors were prepared to integrate the Jewish state into the region but were equally committed to a pathway to a Palestinian state.

“You’re in a place right now, where, again, Arab countries, including countries like Saudi Arabia, are prepared to do things in their relationship with Israel they were never prepared to do before. That opens up an entirely different future, a much more secure future,” he told CNBC.

In related comments, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said at Davos that peace between Israel and the Palestinians along with the expansion of the Abraham Accords was possible in the “near term,” and that the administration was actively working to advance Israel’s integration in the region as a tool to address the crisis in Gaza.

Their remarks came after The Times of Israel reported last week that technical conversations between the US and Saudi Arabia about a potential normalization agreement between Jerusalem and Riyadh have continued amid the Israel-Hamas war.

Three officials said that while the broader interests of the countries involved have not changed since Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, the price of the “significant Palestinian component” of the deal has gone up.

“We determined that the best approach was to work toward a package deal that involved normalization between Israel and key Arab states together with meaningful progress and a political horizon for the Palestinian people,” Sullivan said Tuesday.

“That was our goal before October 7, and it was our progress toward that goal that Hamas sought to destroy on October 7,” he added, while noting that the administration has not given up on its efforts.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks during the Annual Meeting of World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Blinken in his latest trip to the Middle East just a week ago had brought a rough agreement to Israel that its predominantly Muslim neighbors would help rehabilitate Gaza after the war and continue economic integration with Israel, but only if it committed to eventually allowing the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

The war in Gaza was sparked by the shock Hamas-led attack three months ago, when Palestinian terrorists from Gaza stormed into southern Israel and slaughtered some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took around 240 hostages. In response, Israel launched a military offensive in Gaza aimed at toppling Hamas and returning the hostages.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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