ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 67

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Top Netanyahu aides to visit US for talks on Iran, Saudi Arabia — report

Dermer and Hanegbi said set to meet with top Biden officials in Washington amid concerns over Tehran’s new underground nuclear site, hopes for direct Hajj flights

From left to right: Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi at the State Department in Washington on March 7, 2023. (Antony Blinken/Twitter)
File: Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi at the State Department in Washington on March 7, 2023. (Antony Blinken/Twitter)

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi will travel to meet senior officials in Washington DC next week, according to a US media report.

Dermer and Hanegbi are expected to meet with US national security advisor Jake Sullivan and other top-level officials from the White House and State Department to discuss the Iranian nuclear threat and peace prospects with Saudi Arabia, four Israeli and US officials told the Axios news site.

An official in the Prime Minister’s Office said dates have not been finalized, while a White House National Security Council spokesperson told the site there was nothing to confirm.

Both Hanegbi and Dermer are considered close confidants of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The premier’s reported attempts to angle for a White House invitation for himself have fallen flat amid US criticism of the government’s plans to overhaul Israel’s judiciary and ramp up settlement building.

The report of the impending visit came a day after both Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and Hanegbi warned of Israel’s capabilities to strike Tehran’s nuclear sites, addressing concerns over a report that revealed on Monday that Iran was constructing a new subterranean nuclear facility that is likely impenetrable to American bunker-buster bombs.

There has also been a flurry of reports that US-brokered talks between Jerusalem and Riyadh on starting direct flights for Hajj pilgrims are advancing.

Halevi warned Tuesday “there are possible negative developments on the horizon that could prompt action” against Iran.

“Iran has made more progress in uranium enrichment than ever before. We are also closely examining other aspects of the [Iranians’] path to nuclear capability,” the IDF chief of staff said at a conference hosted by the Institute for Policy and Strategy of Reichman University in Herzliya.

IDF chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi speaks at a conference hosted by the Institute for Policy and Strategy of Reichman University in Herzliya on May 23, 2023 (Gilad Kavalerchik)

“We have abilities and others have abilities. We have the ability to hit Iran. We are not indifferent to what Iran is trying to build around us, and it is difficult for Iran to be indifferent to the line we are taking,” he added.

Also speaking at the conference, Hanegbi said Israel was not surprised by Monday’s reports on Iran’s new nuclear site.

Hanegbi acknowledged that “of course, it limits the ability to attack,” but added that “there is no place that can’t be reached.”

He declined to clarify whether Israel could successfully strike such a site, or if only the US has such capabilities. Hanegbi stressed that Israel prefers that Iran’s nuclear program be reined in by an agreement rather than a military response — but that Jerusalem would take action if needed.

Hanegbi said: “If we believe there is no avoiding military action against the nuclear facilities in Iran… I think that any Israeli leader will have full backing from Israel’s citizenry and the state to do what Menachem Begin did in 1981, what Olmert did in 2007. To act when all the other options aren’t effective anymore.”

Israeli jets destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s suspected nuclear facility in Deir Ezzor 26 years later.

Despite fundamental disagreements over the wisdom of returning to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Hanegbi said Israel and the US are united in their determination to stop Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon. “We are sending the message — so is the US — that if you cross the red line, the price you will pay as a regime and as a country is one you wouldn’t want to pay, so be careful.”

He said that “red line” would be a determination Iran is “coming close to the moment of no return.” Hanegbi added that Israel and America agree on the red line, but have different approaches on how to keep Iran from getting there.

File: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes US President Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP)

Reports have swirled in recent days over the talks for direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia, that have the potential to lead to a wider normalization deal — which has long been sought by Israel but largely rejected by the Saudis.

In exchange for full normalization with Israel, Saudis are said to be demanding that the White House unfreeze some Trump-era weapons deals that were frozen when US President Joe Biden took office, and are also seeking a defense treaty with the US similar to NATO as well as its stamp of approval for a civilian nuclear program.

An unsourced Channel 12 report on Tuesday claimed that Washington and Riyadh are both seeking to pressure Israel into restarting diplomatic talks with the Palestinians that will lead to a “separation,” and the US is also demanding that Netanyahu pull his government’s controversial judicial overhaul plan in exchange for normalization with Riyadh.

Coalition heads said they would be uninterested in such an arrangement, the channel reported Wednesday.

Hanegbi on Tuesday denied that there had been any direct conversations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in recent months, but said a normalization deal was possible.

“There is in Saudi Arabia a leader that the world has never seen before, a man who took his country 180 degrees in a different direction, a bold and revolutionary leader,” Hanegbi said. “If he thinks that it is possible to reach normalization with Israel, it will happen. I believe there is a chance this will happen.”

In a historic move last year, Saudi Arabia announced that it opened its airspace to all civilian overflights, hours before Biden became the first US leader to directly fly from Israel to the Gulf nation.

On Saturday, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen touted the possibility of normalization with Saudi Arabia within six months, during an interview with Channel 12’s Meet the Press.

Cohen cited Jerusalem and Riyadh’s joint interests, notably preventing Iran from creating a nuclear bomb, as a reason to be hopeful for a deal.

File: Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Shlomi Amsalem / GPO)

Saudi Arabia’s decision in March to renew ties with Iran after over half a decade was seen by some as a setback for normalization between the kingdom and Israel.

But the Biden administration has continued to work on striking such a deal in recent months, with Sullivan calling it a “national security interest” earlier this month.

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

Foreign Ministry director-general Ronen Levy also spoke with administration officials about a potential Saudi deal during his trip to Washington last week.

Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia in November 2020 to meet with bin Salman, the first publicly reported meeting between the two. Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations, but clandestine ties have strengthened in recent years, due to the Iranian threat.

Emanuel Fabian, Jacob Magid, and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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