US national security adviser heads to Riyadh this weekend

Top Biden aide says Israeli-Saudi normalization a US national security interest

Jake Sullivan says expanding Abraham Accords will be a focus ‘over coming period,’ insists US has no conditions for Netanyahu visit to White House, but invite remains elusive

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

In this photo released by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, speaks to his father, King Salman, right, at a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 9, 2018. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)
In this photo released by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, speaks to his father, King Salman, right, at a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 9, 2018. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday that the US sees a benefit to its national security in brokering a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, underlining the Biden administration’s commitment to continue focusing on expanding the Abraham Accords in the coming period.

While the top Biden aide’s framing of an Israel-Saudi normalization deal as a national security interest appeared to go further than previous administration talking points on the issue, left unclear was to what degree the friendly statement to a largely pro-Israel crowd signaled a cogent policy shift or additional focus from the White House.

“We have the interest and bandwidth to promote normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and in fact, it’s this administration that has produced the first tangible step of these two countries coming close together with the opening of the airspace over Saudi Arabia for civilian flights from Israel,” Sullivan said during an address about the Biden administration’s Middle East policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“But ultimately getting to full normalization is a declared national security interest of the United States, we have been clear about that,” he added.

While Saudi officials have privately expressed interest in such an agreement in recent years, the prospects of Israeli-Saudi normalization remain distant.

Riyadh has presented extensive demands to the United States regarding major improvements to their bilateral relationship as a prerequisite for a deal. The hardline nature of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which has already garnered several blistering condemnations from the Gulf kingdom over its policies toward the Palestinians, has made normalization less palatable to either the palace or the street.

Nonetheless, the current US government has made some progress, including on issues that eluded the administration of former US president Donald Trump, which brokered the Abraham Accords.

Last year, the White House brokered the final stages of a deal to transfer control over a pair of Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, leading to Riyadh opening its airspace for civilian flights to and from Israel. It later coaxed Oman to do the same, shrinking the time required for Israelis to fly to the Far East.

Sullivan was pressed during a question-answer period regarding whether the administration will be able to pull off the elusive deal, given the difficult conditions, but refused to offer details.

“As a sign of my seriousness about how much we are focused on this and how seriously we are taking this, I’m not going to say anything further lest I upset the efforts we are undertaking on this issue,” he said.

However, Sullivan revealed he would be traveling to Riyadh over the weekend for talks with Saudi leaders as well as Indian and Emirati officials.

Touching on the Abraham Accords more broadly in his speech, Sullivan said the administration is committed to “supporting Israel’s ultimate, final, complete integration into the Middle East region and the world.”

“This will be an area of continuing emphasis and focus for us over the coming period as we look to add more countries and to bring Israel even more deeply into the web of relationships in the Middle East and beyond,” he said.

Speaking to Channel 13 news on Friday, Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said normalizing with Saudi Arabia was a central Israeli foreign policy goal.

“This bit really makes us happy, the national security adviser said it’s also a US goal,” he said, noting Sullivan’s upcoming trip. “We’re really hoping for a breakthrough during the visit.”

While some saw Saudi Arabia’s decision in March to normalize relations with Iran as a step away from Riyadh striking a deal with Israel, Sullivan said the US was in close touch with Riyadh “all the way through” its talks with Tehran. He insisted that the March agreement was “in line with the fundamental direction and trend of de-escalation that we have supported and encouraged even while we maintain pressure on Iran through sanctions and other means.”

Sullivan reiterated the administration’s frustration with former Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal brokered just three years prior, arguing that it has led to the Islamic Republic accelerating its enrichment to unprecedented levels.

“We are also engaging Iran diplomatically regarding its nuclear program, and we continue to believe that it was a tragic mistake to leave the deal with nothing at all to replace it,” Sullivan said, though talks remain largely moribund since falling apart last year.

“But we have made clear to Iran that it can never be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon. As President Biden has repeatedly reaffirmed, he will take the actions that are necessary to stand by this statement, including by recognizing Israel’s freedom of action,” he added.

The US national security adviser used the speech to run through the administration’s accomplishments in the Middle East over its first two-plus years, including in the list its diplomacy to help end the May 2021 Gaza war between Israel and Hamas after 11 days; opening Omani and Saudi airspace to Israeli overflights; helping establish the Negev Forum to boost cooperation between Israel, the US and its Arab allies; creating the I2U2 forum to boost cooperation between Israel, India, the US and the United Arab Emirates; brokering a maritime agreement between Israel and Lebanon last year; and organizing a pair of regional summits earlier this year in Egypt and Jordan — the first direct meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officials at a political level in nearly ten years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Sullivan notably avoided criticizing Israel throughout the 30-minute speech. US-Israel ties have been particularly tense in recent months, with Biden personally weighing to warn against the Netanyahu government’s effort to radically overhaul the judiciary and the State Department summoning Israel’s ambassador to Washington over the Knesset’s passing of legislation allowing Israelis to return to northern West Bank lands evacuated during the 2005 Gaza disengagement

The national security adviser instead leaned on vague pronouncements, stressing that democratic values will remain at the forefront of US ties with allies abroad. “Just as we always strive to perfect our own democracy at home, we will always raise concerns regarding human rights and fundamental freedoms in our engagements around the world, including in the Middle East,” he said.

Waiting for Biden

Pressed on when the US will invite Netanyahu to visit the White House, Sullivan insisted that “there are not some set of conditions or circumstances” required for an invitation, but offered little else.

“When we’ve got a visit to announce, we’ll announce it,” the national security adviser said.

Netanyahu is now in his fifth month in office without having received an invitation, a longer wait than previous Israeli leaders have had to make. Analysts have pointed to the cold shoulder as a sign of US displeasure with Netanyahu’s government, amid fears of a growing rift between Washington and Jerusalem.

Biden said in late March that Netanyahu would not be invited to Washington in the “near term,” shortly after voicing his displeasure with the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plans.

US President Joe Biden meets then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (right) at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. At left is Secretary of State Antony Blinken; 2nd-left is US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. (GPO)

Substantive talks regarding a long-coveted White House visit for Netanyahu have yet to take place, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel last month, speculating that the US is still seeking more clarity regarding the future of the government’s judicial overhaul effort before moving forward.

Netanyahu agreed to pause the legislative blitz radically curbing the High Court of Justice’s power last month in order to allow for compromise negotiations with the opposition. Those talks have been held several times at President Isaac Herzog’s residence in recent weeks, but they have yet to reach a breakthrough and the coalition may well decide to move forward with parts of the overhaul in June.

Biden’s announcement last week that he’ll be seeking re-election will likely further complicate efforts to schedule a Netanyahu visit to the US, with domestic political considerations playing an even larger role in foreign policy decisions as November 2024 approaches.

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