A Saudi-owned newspaper reported Sunday that the nation has told the Biden administration it is freezing US-brokered efforts to normalize relations with Israel because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government is unwilling to make any concessions to the Palestinians.
An Israeli and an American official both said the report was false.
According to the report in the Elaph newspaper, supposedly citing officials in Netanyahu’s office, the US has informed Israel of the Saudi stance. It said that Israel was “confused” by the move, believing that the Saudis were prepared to move ahead with normalizing ties without linking it to the progress on the Palestinian issue.
The report by the London-based paper’s Israel correspondent singled out the insistence by far-right ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir that Israel not make any concessions to the Palestinians, adding that without progress with Ramallah, there could be no progress with Riyadh.
Last month, Netanyahu indicated that he was open to gestures to Palestinians if a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia depended on it, and hinted that he would not let coalition members block an agreement.
“Do I think it’s feasible to have that, and do I think that political questions will block it? I doubt it,” Netanyahu told Bloomberg News. “If there’s political will, there will be a political way to achieve normalization and a formal peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“I think there’s enough room to discuss possibilities,” he added.
Netanyahu’s comments were in line with what Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said the day before in an interview with Elaph, which is often seen as a conduit for public messaging between Jerusalem and Riyadh.
“The Palestinian issue will not be an obstacle to peace,” Cohen said.
“We also proved this in the Abraham Accords. We all have an interest in improving life in the areas of the Palestinian Authority.”
But Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners have ruled out any compromise with the Palestinians.
“We will not make any concessions to the Palestinians. It’s a fiction,” Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, told Army Radio last month.
Smotrich said that while Israel is interested in the US-brokered deal with Riyadh, “it has nothing to do with Judea and Samaria,” referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.
However, in recent weeks the Saudis have stepped up their engagement with Palestinians.
Saudi Arabia will be co-hosting an event on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly this week focused on revamping the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, three UN diplomats told The Times of Israel on Thursday.
The event, titled “Peace Day Effort for Middle East Peace,” will take place on Monday and is being put on by Saudi Arabia along with the Arab League and the European Union in cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, one of the diplomats said. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will be the keynote speaker.
Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian missions were invited to the event, the UN diplomat said, explaining that it is focused on congregating important global stakeholders on the issue in order to “reinvigorate” the peace process.
The current Israeli government led by Netanyahu has refused to entertain the notion of peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, instead moving to radically expand Israel’s footprint in the West Bank. The PA supports a two-state solution, but its leadership is marred by charges of corruption and President Mahmoud Abbas was roundly criticized last week for a speech employing a range of antisemitic tropes.
Both Netanyahu and Abbas will be at the UN this week.
Two weeks ago, Riyadh hosted a Palestinian Authority delegation to discuss how to leverage a normalization deal to advance the Palestinian cause.
Saudi leaders assured the visiting delegation that Riyadh “will not abandon” the Palestinian cause, even as it discusses normalizing ties with Israel, a US and an Arab official told The Times of Israel last week.
The message was passed along in multiple meetings between the Palestinian Authority delegation and senior Saudi officials, including Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, the US and the Arab official said.
Last month, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Jordan began serving as Riyadh’s first-ever nonresident ambassador to the Palestinians as well as its first-ever nonresident consul general to Jerusalem.
The Arab official explained that Riyadh has made clear to Ramallah that it is prepared to depart from its long-held public stance against normalizing ties with Israel absent an actualized two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the PA has come to terms with this development and accordingly is asking for measures that fall short of immediate statehood.
Jacob Magid contributed to this report