Potential Saudi deal would require ‘significant concessions’ to Palestinians – report

New York Times reports Riyadh’s demands for action on the ground unlikely to be approved by Israel’s hardline coalition, PM may need to seek centrist government with opposition

(L) Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP); (C) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90); (L) US President Joe Biden on November 2, 2022 in Washington, DC (Michael A. McCoy / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)
(L) Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP); (C) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90); (L) US President Joe Biden on November 2, 2022 in Washington, DC (Michael A. McCoy / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

A potential normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel would require “significant concessions” to the Palestinians that are unlikely to be approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline coalition, and could instead require him to seek the formation of a unity government, The New York Times reported Saturday.

Citing an 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.

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.”

The report noted that such moves were unlikely to be approved by the far-right elements in the Netanyahu government, and that a push in that direction could bring it down.

Opposition leaders have stated that they will not serve in a coalition with 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 report said.

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.

File: In this photo released by the Saudi Royal Palace, 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)

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

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.”

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, December 12, 2022. (Susan Walsh/AP)

On Friday, US President Joe Biden hinted at possible progress in a potential normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

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.

The Times reported Saturday that Biden has not yet made up his mind on the desirability of an Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization deal.

The newspaper reported that during a previous visit by Sullivan in May, Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman expressed an increased willingness to reach a deal on normalization with Israel, prompting Biden to launch a “full-bore effort.”

Thomas Friedman, known to have a close relationship with Biden, wrote in a New York Times column Thursday that these steps might include an official Israeli promise never to annex the West Bank (as part of the 2020 normalization deal with the United Emirates, Netanyahu agreed to hold off on actualizing his annexation pledge until 2024); a commitment not to establish any more settlements or expand the boundaries of existing ones; a commitment not to legalize any illegal outposts; and the relinquishing of some Palestinian-populated territory in Area C of the West Bank, which is controlled by Israel under the Oslo Accords.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority — which has given a cold shoulder to other recent Arab normalization deals with Israel — would have to endorse this latest one with Saudi Arabia, he wrote.

Friedman stressed that any such deal would likely take months to negotiate and is still “a long shot, at best.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shake hands following their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 31, 2023. (Ronaldo Schemidt/Pool/AFP)

Biden has said as much himself, telling CNN earlier this month, “We’re a long way from [a Saudi deal]. We got a lot to talk about.”

The US president pledged during the 2020 campaign to make the kingdom a “pariah” over its human rights record and the 2018 murder in Turkey of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, remarks that angered Riyadh.

US relations with the desert kingdom then warmed again in 2022, when Biden visited both Israel and Saudi Arabia on a trip to reportedly secure a number of understandings from Riyadh, including higher oil production to offset gas prices, and to boost the alliance amid changing geopolitical landscapes in the Middle East and Asia.

Washington has also sought to advance an Israel-Saudi normalization deal with an eye on the benefits to US national security.

For his part, 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.

However, US officials have warned in recent months that Israel’s policies in the West Bank and the advancement of its judicial overhaul have made securing a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia all but impossible, and have strained ties between Jerusalem and Washington.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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