Still no measurable progress on Saudi deal, Israeli official says

In wake of WSJ report that US, Riyadh have agreed on broad terms, source tells Channel 13 that US wants to wrap up a deal by next March, but there is no firm framework

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in the Knesset on July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in the Knesset on July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After a report Wednesday that US and Saudi officials have agreed on the broad terms of a potential Israel-Saudi deal, an Israeli official has said there has been no tangible progress on normalization.

At the same time, the official told Channel 13, “We are working around the clock on moving the process forward.”

The source’s position lines up with White House reaction to The Wall Street Journal report that a deal 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 paper 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.

The Israeli official said that the Biden Administration had presented Jerusalem with a timeline that would try to secure a deal between December 2023 and March 2024, before the US presidential election kicks into high gear.

Regarding demands that Israel make significant gestures to the Palestinians, the Israeli source told Channel 13: “We have not reached agreements on what is called ‘concessions to the Palestinians.'”

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman (L) and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan meet at the White House on May 18, 2022. (Khalid bin Salman/Twitter)

“We will absolutely agree to discuss the various issues, but there are no agreements.”

The official also spoke about Israel’s position on the reported Saudi desire to have a civilian nuclear project on its soil: “We are discussing it. There are conceivable scenarios — but we are also definitely not dismissing it.”

According to The Wall Street Journal, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman 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 the paper 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 and Bahrain 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.

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.

US President Joe Biden looks at Israel’s President Isaac Herzog as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, July 18, 2023. (Susan Walsh/AP)

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, however, 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, the 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 apparent 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.”

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