White House flatly denies report, says no framework reached

Saudis said wary of full normalization with Israel, or a deal with current government

WSJ reports that US, Riyadh have agreed on broad terms, hope to finalize details in 9-12 months, though odds low due to joint demand that Israel make major gestures to Palestinians

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

In this photo provided by Saudi Press Agency, SPA, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)
In this photo provided by Saudi Press Agency, SPA, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has reportedly told aides that he is not ready to fully normalize ties with Israel and is not eager to reach an agreement with the current hardline government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

While US officials have stressed that their approach to an Israel-Saudi deal is not all or nothing and that they also back interim steps that bring the sides closer to full normalization, the stance attributed to the crown prince in a Wall Street Journal report on Wednesday appeared to be the first time a Saudi official was suggesting that such intermediate moves might be as far as Riyadh is willing to go, and that it’s not ready for an accord akin to the one Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates in 2020.

And while US officials have privately acknowledged that opponents of Palestinian sovereignty — who make up a clear majority in Netanyahu’s government — will complicate efforts to secure a normalization deal, since it will require significant moves to revive the two-state solution, the report was also the first time discomfort with the idea of making any sort of deal with the current coalition was expressed by Riyadh as well.

At the same time, the Journal noted that bin Salman — known colloquially as MBS — has given conflicting messages to different audiences and that US officials still believe the Saudi leader is serious about trying to reach an agreement.

The report said that US and Saudi officials have agreed on broad terms for a potential Israel-Saudi deal, which would see the US make major security guarantees to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh take major steps to distance itself from China, and Israel take major steps toward creating an independent Palestinian state.

US officials told The Wall Street Journal that specific details would hopefully be hammered out in the next nine to 12 months, though they stopped short of suggesting that a deal would also be signed in that time period.

From left to right: Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir, Likud chairman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Religious Zionism head MK Bezalel Smotrich, in 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The White House flatly denied the report. “There is no agreed-to set of negotiations, there’s no agreed-to framework to codify normalization or any of the other security considerations that we and our friends have in the region,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in response to a question on the matter during a phone briefing with reporters.

“The reporting has left some people with the impression that the discussions are farther along and closer to some sense of certainty than they actually are,” he added.

Kirby clarified that Biden had indeed directed his top aides “to see what was in the realm of the possible when it comes to pursuing Israel-Saudi normalization” and that “there is a commitment by the administration to keep talking and to keep trying to move things forward.”

The broad terms presented by The Wall Street Journal have been reported in recent months.

On July 27, The New York Times also reported that US President Joe Biden had yet to decide whether he would ultimately sign off on the maneuver but had still instructed his aides to try and reach a deal.

Saudi Arabia is seeking a NATO-like mutual security treaty that would obligate the US to come to its defense if the latter is attacked; a civilian nuclear program monitored and backed by the US; and 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, NYT said, confirming previous reporting in The Times of Israel.

In exchange, the US is looking for Riyadh to offer an unprecedentedly large aid package to Palestinian institutions in the West Bank, curtail deals with Chinese technology firms like Huawei, use US dollars instead of Chinese currency to price oil sales, reject a Beijing plan to establish a military base on Saudi soil and bolster the truce that ended the civil war in Yemen.

As for the specific steps Israel will have to take vis a vis the Palestinians, those have not yet been hashed out. A diplomat familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel Tuesday that Riyadh is not yet familiar enough with the issue in order to come up with specific demands.

The diplomat said the issue is not “burning” for MBS and that he has little appetite for the current leadership of the Palestinian Authority. However, the crown prince also recognizes that he cannot reach a deal with Israel that neglects the Palestinians, given the public sentiment in Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s view of itself as the guardian of Muslim holy sites, the diplomat said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, April 19, 2023. (Wafa)

For his part, Netanyahu maintained this week that the Palestinian issue is merely a box “you have to check… to say that you’re doing it,” indicating that he did not anticipate that the demands on that front would be particularly steep.

National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi told the Journal that Israel has yet to be presented with any terms. “At the moment, we don’t even know where to begin. [The US and Saudi Arabia] are still dealing with basic issues between them, so apparently it’s premature even for them to discuss it.”

Still, Hanegbi said he has “full confidence” that “whatever the United States will decide” on the issue would address Israeli concerns.

At the same time, other Israeli officials have expressed discomfort with the Saudi demand for a civilian nuclear program.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday in which he posited that if the United States were to agree to a defense pact with Riyadh as part of a potential normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, it would reassure Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations that they are protected from Iranian aggression, rendering their nuclear ambitions “unnecessary.”

However, a defense pact with Saudi Arabia will likely have a difficult time making its way through Congress, given discomfort over Riyadh’s human rights record, particularly among progressives.

It is perhaps due to the many hurdles that stand before a deal that US officials have been willing to acknowledge in recent weeks that chances for success remain low.

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