Inside storyUS officials privately say no chance of deal with Netanyahu gov't

Saudi normalization still possible post-war, but price for Israel is higher — officials

Top US officials, Arab diplomat say Jerusalem will have to concede more to Palestinians than before Oct. 7 onslaught, but that Riyadh’s need for US defense guarantees hasn’t changed

Jacob Magid

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

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)
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)

Israeli, Saudi and American officials have insisted in recent weeks that a US-brokered normalization agreement between Jerusalem and Riyadh is still on the table and even within reach.

One might assume Saudi Arabia would want to distance itself from Israel, and at the very least not publicly discuss plans to recognize the Jewish state amid the war in Gaza.

But Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom told the BBC on Tuesday that Riyadh is “absolutely” still interested in normalizing relations with Jerusalem, echoing comments from earlier in the day by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and similar ones made recently by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Technical conversations between the US and Saudi Arabia about a potential normalization agreement have continued amid the Israel-Hamas war, according to two senior US officials and a senior Arab diplomat. The three officials told The Times of Israel this week that while the broader interests of the countries involved have not changed since the October 7 attack, the price of the “significant Palestinian component” of the deal has gone up.

Whereas Israel was being asked before the war to make a relatively limited commitment to the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state, it will now need to go further in demonstrating that commitment while also accepting the return of the Palestinian Authority to governing the Gaza Strip, which Netanyahu has all but rejected in recent months, the two senior US officials said.

This message was relayed to Israeli leaders by Blinken during his visit in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, one of the US officials said.

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)

“The idea is for major fighting in Gaza to end and then move toward normalization with a big Palestinian component, which can be used as leverage to start final status negotiations [between Israel and the Palestinians] down the line,” said the other senior US official.

“We don’t have any other leverage to get to a political horizon, so [we want to] use normalization to fundamentally reshape the situation,” they added, in an apparent acknowledgment of the limits of US influence in the region.

Both US officials said Washington is operating under the impression that a deal can still be reached before the end of US President Joe Biden’s first term in office.

The senior Arab diplomat, who is familiar with the details of the normalization negotiations, confirmed the US timeline but expressed significant skepticism that a deal could be reached within months.

“US officials privately admit that there’s no chance for this kind of deal under the current Netanyahu government, which won’t even agree to give the PA its own money, let alone commit to an eventual Palestinian state,” the diplomat said, referring to the hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenues that Israel is withholding from Ramallah.

“It will take time until there’s a new coalition in Israel, which still might be opposed to any steps toward the Palestinians,” the diplomat added.

Palestinians look at a damaged residential building after an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Why Israeli price has gone up along with Saudi interest

Hussein Ibish, a senior scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, argued that the fighting in Gaza would not even have to cease completely for negotiations toward a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia to move forward.

A significant wind-down in the Israeli offensive and shift by the IDF to pinpoint operations targeting Hamas leaders and high-level military infrastructure could lay the groundwork for a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, he maintained.

Ibish agreed that the price of what negotiators call the “significant Palestinian component” of the normalization deal has increased, likening it to a commodity whose worth fluctuates over time while dismissing the argument made by some Israeli leaders that its scope has gradually shrunk.

He noted that Saudi Arabia views itself as the leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds, and cannot be seen as forgoing the Palestinian cause when the issue is again a top international focus.

Ibish said Israel would still not need to agree to withdraw from the West Bank or immediately establish a Palestinian state, but instead agree that statehood is the endgame, forgoing the settler movement’s desire to annex the West Bank in favor of a series of “relatively modest steps” to boost the PA there.

“That would probably satisfy Riyadh, which would then pump money into the PA as part of the (normalization) agreement,” Ibish said.

Bahrainis carry anti-Israel placards during a gathering in Manama on October 20, 2023, amid the ongoing war between Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group. (Mazen Mahdi/AFP)

The veteran Mideast scholar explained that the Palestinian component of the deal was the outstanding issue in talks between the US and Saudi Arabia before October 7, since Washington and Riyadh had resolved their differences on the nuclear and defense agreements that Saudi Arabia wants to sign with the US.

Ibish acknowledged that the war’s approximate death toll of over 23,000 Palestinians in Gaza — an unverified figure that includes both civilians and combatants — has “tested the patience” of Arab leaders, including Saudi Arabia, and he speculated that countries might “reach their limit” if the figure were to mushroom.

However, he noted that Abraham Accords countries — the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — have not seen significant protests calling on their governments to revoke their normalization agreements with Israel, because influencers there “continue to support those deals intellectually, even if they don’t emotionally.”

As for Saudi Arabia, the Israel-Hamas war has further emphasized the need for legally binding assurances from the US as Iran becomes increasingly emboldened, Ibish said. “They’re looking at Iran on the brink of nuclear weapons and recognize that the better [counter] is to have a written understanding with the US that resolves the big problem of unpredictability and unreliability when it comes to its relationship with the US and whether [Washington] will come to its defense if it is attacked.”

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