Report: Saudis seek largely declarative steps on Palestinian state to forge Israel ties

Officials say Riyadh will suffice with a mere commitment to eventual establishment of a state, amid its fears that the window to land security guarantees from the US is closing

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, meets with Saudi Arabia's Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, meets with Saudi Arabia's Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Saudi Arabia would be willing to accept a commitment from Israel to create a Palestinian state, rather than more concrete steps toward that end in exchange for normalizing relations with Jerusalem, in a bid to get a defense pact with Washington approved before the US presidential election, sources told Reuters Friday.

Riyadh is increasingly keen to shore up its security and ward off threats from rival Iran so the kingdom can forge ahead with its ambitious plan to transform its economy and attract huge foreign investment, Reuters said, citing two unnamed regional sources.

To create some wiggle room in talks about recognizing Israel and to get the US pact back on track, Saudi officials have told their US counterparts that Riyadh would not insist Israel take concrete steps to create a Palestinian state and would instead accept a political commitment to a two-state solution, two senior regional sources said.

The Washington Post reported Friday that the US has told Israel that the deal with Saudi Arabia must move forward within the next two months if at all, because Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is demanding a NATO-like treaty, which will likely require US Senate ratification. Without one by June, the initiative is more likely to get buried in campaign politics amid the November presidential election.

In addition to binding security guarantees from the US, Riyadh is also seeking access to top-notch American military equipment and Washington’s support for a civilian nuclear program, according to US and Arab officials. Analysts say Saudi Arabia is determined to secure the deal before the election because in the event that US President Joe Biden is not re-elected, Democrats will be less likely to ratify a deal inked by a Republican White House.

Last month, two senior US officials and a senior Arab diplomat told The Times of Israel 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 had in fact gone up.

Whereas Israel was being asked before the war to take limited steps to keep a two-state solution alive, the senior officials said it will now need to commit to establishing an irreversible pathway toward an eventual Palestinian state while also accepting the return of the Palestinian Authority to governing the Gaza Strip, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has all but rejected in recent months.

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)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Netanyahu during a visit to Tel Aviv last month that Arab stakeholders are willing to take part in the reconstruction of Gaza and that Saudi Arabia is willing to normalize relations with Israel if Jerusalem agrees to take steps to create a political horizon for the Palestinians, an Israeli official said, adding that Netanyahu did not appear open to the proposal.

The premier said publicly afterward that he had rejected the American “attempt to impose on us a reality that will jeopardize us,” adding that he “will not compromise on full Israeli security control over all the territory west of the Jordan [River].”

While this does not leave room for a fully sovereign Palestinian state, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and successive US administrations have said the Palestinian state they seek to establish would be demilitarized.

For his part, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said last month that Riyadh will not normalize relations with Israel nor contribute to Gaza’s reconstruction without a credible pathway to a Palestinian state.

Children stand atop a small hill near tents at a makeshift shelter for Palestinians who fled to Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 30, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (Mahmud Hams / AFP)

Blinken is slated to arrive back in Israel on Sunday where he is again expected to raise the Saudi normalization talks with Netanyahu.

His trip comes days after reports that the US is considering unilaterally recognizing an independent Palestinian state and after UK Foreign Minister David Cameron announced that London was considering doing the same.

Earlier this week, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer met with senior administration officials in Washington and relayed that Netanyahu is prepared to commit to a political horizon for the Palestinians but will not accept talk of a demilitarized Palestinian state, Channel 12 reported Friday, without citing any sources.

Explaining Saudi Arabia’s approach to the Palestinian component of the negotiations, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington senior scholar Hussein Ibish said that before October 7, “it would have been good enough for Saudi Arabia for Israel to get involved in some sort of national negotiations with the PLO for the Palestinians, and the propping up of the PA, but without necessarily undertaking to the eventual recognition of a Palestinian state, and accepting the irrevocable principle of Palestinian statehood.”

Since the war’s breakout, though, demands regarding the Palestinian component of the deal have gone up. “Nobody is seriously expecting Israel to withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank or to recognize a Palestinian state that does not yet exist. What is required is for Israel to recognize the Palestinian right to a state and the need for a Palestinian state,” Ibish maintained.

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