Top Biden aide: There’s still work to do on Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization deal

Jake Sullivan says sides have come to ‘broad understanding of many of the key elements’ of an agreement, but that there’s no framework in place or terms ready to be signed

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

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)
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)

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday that the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia have a general idea of the major elements of a potential normalization agreement between Jerusalem and Riyadh, but there is still much more work to do before a deal can be signed.

“Many of the elements of a pathway to normalization are now on the table. We don’t have a framework, we don’t have the terms ready to be signed. There is still work to do,” Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One, as US President Joe Biden made his way to India in order to attend the Group of 20 Summit in New Delhi this weekend.

Several times in recent months, the top Biden aide has sought to temper expectations of an imminent deal, but Thursday appeared to be one of the first times in which he indicated that the sides have at least reached a “broad understanding of many of the key elements.”

In exchange for normalizing ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia is asking for a major defense pact with the US in addition to US cooperation in establishing its own civilian nuclear program. Washington, in turn, is looking for Riyadh to pair down its economic and military dealings with China and Russia.

In order to shore up support for the deal among congressional Democrats and the pro-Palestinian public in Saudi Arabia and the broader Muslim world, Israel will likely be asked to offer significant concessions to the Palestinians that would advance a two-state solution — a pill that will be difficult for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government to swallow.

Earlier this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held phone calls with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas within hours of one another this week, discussing the potential normalization deal in both conversations.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Tuesday, January 31, 2023. (Ronaldo Schemidt/Pool via AP)

Sullivan said afterward that while Blinken’s calls with Netanyahu and Abbas were more than just routine, they do not “portend any imminent breakthrough or action with respect to the question of normalization.”

Washington and Ramallah sent delegations of senior officials to Saudi Arabia this week for talks regarding a potential agreement.

The US delegation was led by White House Middle East czar Brett McGurk and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf. The Palestinian delegation was led by PLO Executive Committee secretary-general Hussein al-Sheikh. The two teams met while in Riyadh.

Rather than boycotting the process as it did with previous normalization negotiations, Ramallah is engaging with the parties involved, aiming to leverage a potential deal in order to advance its statehood effort.

Three officials told The Times of Israel last week that the PA is seeking “irreversible” steps that will advance its bid for statehood in the context of the normalization negotiations.

Brett McGurk, US White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, speaks during the 17th IISS Manama Dialogue in the Bahraini capital Manama on November 21, 2021 (Mazen Mahdi / AFP)

The steps proposed have included US backing for recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, the US reopening its consulate in Jerusalem that historically served Palestinians, the scrapping of congressional legislation characterizing the PA as a terror organization, the transfer of West Bank territory from Israeli to Palestinian control and the demolition of illegal outposts in the West Bank.

Biden officials have pushed back on the Palestinian proposals relating to the US, pointing to congressional legislation that would require the US to end all of its funding to the UN if the Palestinians were granted full-member status.

The US has encouraged the PA to moderate its requests and aim them at Israel instead. It has highlighted the idea of transferring Area C territory of the West Bank, which is under Israeli control, to Area B or Area A where the PA has more authority, as something that would be much more attainable, a Palestinian official said.

The Palestinian official expressed frustration over the US reaction to Ramallah’s proposals.

“They’re willing to discuss significant gestures for Saudi Arabia, but all they say to our proposals is, ‘That’s not possible,’” the official said.

Leaf is slated to land in Tel Aviv over the weekend to brief Israeli figures on the talks, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel.

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