ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 56

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US wants Riyadh to significantly scale back ties with China

Top Biden aides dispatched to Saudi Arabia to discuss normalization deal – report

NYT says Israel would likely be expected to commit to never annex West Bank, cease building new settlements and legalizing outposts, and transfer parts of Area C to Palestinians

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)

Senior White House officials arrived in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, reportedly with directions from US President Joe Biden to explore the possibility of a normalization agreement between Riyadh and Jerusalem that would include significant Israeli concessions to the Palestinians aimed at keeping prospects for a two-state solution alive.

Biden has not yet made up his mind as to whether he will ultimately sign off on the maneuver, which would likely require a massive security pact between the US and Saudi Arabia. Biden pledged during the 2020 campaign to make the kingdom a “pariah” over its human rights record, but he has nonetheless ordered National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and White House Middle East czar Brett McGurk to discuss terms of a deal, The New York Times’s Tom Friedman wrote in a column, without citing sources.

A White House National Security Council spokesperson confirmed to The Times of Israel that Sullivan had arrived in Saudi Arabia, but did not say it was to discuss a potential Israel-Saudi normalization deal. The spokesperson said Sullivan would meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to “discuss bilateral and regional matters.

That includes significant progress that’s been made in talks to build on the benefits of the truce in Yemen that have endured over the past 16 months, as well as initiatives to advance a common vision for a more peaceful, secure, prosperous, and stable Middle East region.”

Riyadh 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, Friedman wrote in his column, 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, to significantly roll back its growing relationship with China, and to help bring an end to the civil war in Yemen, according to the columnist, who has been granted several recent interviews with Biden and is understood to be close to the president.

A neighborhood in the West Bank settlement of Eli overlooking a nearby Palestinian village, January 17, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

In parallel, Riyadh will also demand that Israel take major steps to preserve a two-state solution in order to secure normalization with Saudi Arabia.

Friedman wrote that these steps might include an official Israeli promise to never annex the West Bank (as part of the 2020 normalization deal with the United Emirates, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to hold off on actualizing his annexation pledge until 2024); a commitment to not establish any more settlements or expand the boundaries of existing ones; a commitment not to legalize any illegal outposts; and the relinquishing of some Palestinian-populated territory in Area C of the West Bank, which is controlled by Israel under the Oslo Accords.

Netanyahu could well be forced to abandon the far-right members in his cabinet who would oppose these terms and instead realign himself with centrist political forces in the opposition, Friedman speculated.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority — which has given a cold shoulder to other recent Arab normalization deals with Israel — would have to endorse this latest one with Saudi Arabia, he wrote.

He acknowledged that the Saudi leadership “is not particularly interested in the Palestinians or knowledgeable about the intricacies of the peace process,” while clarifying that Biden would have a hard time signing off on a deal that didn’t include major Israeli concessions on that front.

“It will be hard enough for President Biden to sell any deal like this to the US Congress, but I can assure you that there will be a strong core of Democratic opposition to any proposal that does not include meaningful, clearly defined and enforceable provisions to preserve the option of a two-state solution and to meet President Biden’s own demand that Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal measures of freedom and dignity. These elements are essential to any sustainable peace in the Middle East,” US Senator Chris Van Hollen told the Times.

File: 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)

Friedman stressed that any such deal would likely take months to negotiate and is still “a long shot, at best.”

Biden said as much himself, telling CNN earlier this month, “We’re a long way from [a Saudi deal]. We got a lot to talk about.”

“We’re making progress in the region, [but a normalization deal] depends upon the conduct and what is asked of us for them to recognize Israel,” added the president, while lamenting that Netanyahu’s cabinet has some “of the most extreme members” he’s seen in Israel, and that his ministers who back settling “anywhere they want” in the West Bank are “part of the problem” in the conflict.

On Saudi Arabia, Biden said, “Quite frankly, I don’t think they have much of a problem with Israel.”

“Whether or not we would provide a means by which [Saudi Arabia] could have civilian nuclear power [and whether the US could] be a guarantor of their security — that’s… a little way off,” he said.

For his part, Netanyahu has long sought what is seen as an elusive normalization deal with the Saudis, repeatedly describing it as one of the top priorities of his new government and one that could lead to an end to both the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, US officials have warned in recent months that Israel’s policies in the West Bank and the advancement of its judicial overhaul have made securing a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia all but impossible.

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