Top Biden official flags ‘misreporting’ in Israeli press on Saudi normalization

Assistant secretary of state says there’s been ‘a lot of hyperventilation’ in the media following reports supposedly revealing details of US-led talks between Jerusalem and Riyadh

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

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia takes his seat ahead of a working lunch at the G20 Summit, Nov. 15, 2022, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia. (Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP)
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia takes his seat ahead of a working lunch at the G20 Summit, Nov. 15, 2022, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia. (Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP)

A senior Biden administration official on Wednesday reproved the “misreporting” in the Israeli press about US efforts to broker a long-sought normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The remarks followed several reports purporting to reveal breakthroughs in the negotiations and new details on supposed conditions that the US and Saudi Arabia had set in exchange for reaching a deal with Israel.

“There’s a lot of misreporting and a lot of hyperventilation in the press, a lot of excitable rumination in the press, especially in the Israeli press,” US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf said during her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and Central Asia Subcommittee.

Leaf clarified that an Israel-Saudi agreement was still “no question an end goal” for the Biden administration and that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has also vocalized “that is clearly a thing he’s got in mind as a step he wants to move to[ward].”

The assistant secretary of state noted that the US still sees interim deals that can be reached with Jerusalem and Riyadh before a formal normalization agreement is signed. Leaf pointed to the decisions by Saudi Arabia and Oman to open their airspace to Israeli overflights as the kinds of transitional deals that the Biden administration has already managed to secure.

Last week, Israel’s Channel 12 news published several stories regarding the normalization negotiations, both of which were written up in The Times of Israel.

The first claimed that the White House is conditioning such a deal on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government shelving for good its effort to overhaul the judiciary in addition to restarting peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.

A day later, Channel 12 reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen had spoken by phone with MBS as part of “very complex” negotiations on launching direct flights between Israel and Jeddah next month for the Hajj annual Muslim pilgrimage.

The report claimed Bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, is holding the talks from Bahrain, with the mediation of that country’s foreign minister, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al- Zayani.

The network said that Saudi Arabia was demanding certain powers in the West Bank be transferred from the IDF to the Palestinian Authority forces in addition to giving the PA security-related responsibilities at the Temple Mount, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City.

A senior Biden administration official, speaking to The Times of Israel on Wednesday, dismissed the Channel 12 reports as “laughable.”

“I’m not sure where these reporters are getting their details from, but setting these kinds of ultimatums is just not how we work. It’s not how these deals get done,” the official said, adding that the false reporting also damages the delicate efforts to broker an agreement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset during a debate about the soaring homicide rate on May 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While hosting this year’s Arab League summit earlier last month, MBS stressed his commitment to Palestinian statehood at the Arab League summit.

“We will not delay in providing assistance to the Palestinian people in recovering their lands, restoring their legitimate rights and establishing an independent state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital,” bin Salman said in his address to the Jeddah conference. “The Palestinian issue was and remains the central issue for Arab countries, and it is at the top of the kingdom’s priorities.”

The comments were largely standard for leadership in Riyadh, which has long insisted publicly that it remains committed to the Palestinian cause and will only normalize ties with Israel after a two-state solution has been reached. This has not stopped the Biden administration from working to strike a deal between Jerusalem and Riyadh, with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan calling it a “national security interest” earlier in May.

Sullivan then flew to Riyadh, where he met with bin Salman and raised the issue. Sullivan was accompanied by senior White House aides Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein who subsequently traveled to Jerusalem to brief Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the status of the endeavor.

While there is optimism in Jerusalem, Israel’s Arab neighbors have sent other signals, expressing severe discontent with Netanyahu’s hardline government over its far-right members and antagonistic policies toward the Palestinians.

Leaders of Arab countries pose for a group picture ahead of the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Still, Saudi Arabia has been willing to name its price for normalization with Israel in talks with Biden officials.

A senior Middle East diplomat told The Times of Israel in March that Riyadh has asked the US to green-light its development of a civilian nuclear program in exchange for the kingdom normalizing relations with Israel.

The civilian nuclear program is among several demands Riyadh has presented in talks with the Biden administration over the past year, the diplomat said, while clarifying that such a deal remains “very far off.”

Further complicating the effort, Saudi Arabia is also conditioning a normalization deal with Israel on a significant expansion of defense ties with the US, including a system of guarantees to prevent future administrations from pulling out of weapons deals that have already been signed, the diplomat said.

Notably, the Middle East diplomat revealed that Saudi officials have not raised a specific demand related to the Palestinian issue in their talks with the US, as the United Arab Emirates did when it conditioned its decision to normalize ties in 2020 on Netanyahu shelving his plan to annex large parts of the West Bank.

The diplomat speculated that a Palestinian-related demand would likely be raised toward the end of the negotiations.

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