US delegation heading to Saudi Arabia amid Biden normalization push

Riyadh to host senior White House and State Department officials in same week as top Palestinian officials will be visiting to discuss high-stakes deal

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

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the APEC Leader's Informal Dialogue with Guests during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation APEC summit, November 18, 2022, in Bangkok, Thailand. (Athit Perawongmetha/Pool Photo via AP)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the APEC Leader's Informal Dialogue with Guests during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation APEC summit, November 18, 2022, in Bangkok, Thailand. (Athit Perawongmetha/Pool Photo via AP)

A delegation of top American officials is slated to travel to Riyadh this week to meet with Saudi counterparts in order to discuss a potential normalization agreement between the Gulf kingdom and Israel, a US official and a Palestinian official told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

The visit by White House Middle East czar Brett McGurk and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf will come just over a month after US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan visited Saudi Arabia with the same objective, pointing to Washington’s continued determination to broker an elusive deal. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also visited Riyadh on the same mission in June.

McGurk and Leaf’s visit will overlap with that of a Palestinian delegation led by Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee secretary-general Hussein al-Sheikh, who will be in Riyadh to discuss what Ramallah is hoping to obtain from a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, the two officials said.

A White House spokesperson declined a request for comment while a State Department spokesperson said they had nothing to announce. A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Saudi Arabia is prepared to forgo its long-maintained public stance against normalizing with Israel in the absence of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Riyadh is still not expected to agree to a deal with Jerusalem that does not include a significant advancement toward Palestinian sovereignty, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Last week, three officials told The Times of Israel that the Palestinian Authority is seeking “irreversible” steps that will advance its bid for statehood in the context of negotiations for a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

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 razing of illegal outposts in the West Bank.

Hussein al-Sheikh (C), secretary general of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), attends the funeral of prime minister Ahmad Qurei in the city of Ramallah in the West Bank on February 22, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The steps would be major victories for the PA, which has enjoyed few diplomatic achievements in recent years. However, they are a far cry from the more far-reaching demands Ramallah has long raised, highlighting its diminished political stature at home and abroad.

Sheikh discussed the measures with Leaf, the US assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, during a meeting last week and received a largely chilly response, according to a Palestinian official.

Biden administration officials have pushed back on the Palestinian proposals relating to the US, encouraging the PA to moderate its requests and aim them at Israel instead.

But major gestures to the Palestinians are almost certain to be opposed by some in Netanyahu’s hardline government. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said last week that the idea that Israel will make concessions to the Palestinians as part of a normalization deal is a “fiction.”

While a deal is expected to include a Palestinian component, the bulk of Saudi demands are directed at the US, and those have been the focus on the negotiations thus far between the Biden administration and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Riyadh has been seeking a NATO-like mutual security treaty that would obligate the US to come to Saudi Arabia’s defense if the latter is attacked, a US-backed civilian nuclear program in Saudi Arabia, and the ability to purchase more advanced weaponry from Washington.

In exchange, the US is looking for Riyadh to significantly roll back its economic and military ties with China and Russia and bolster the truce that ended the civil war in Yemen.

Any new US treaty with Saudi Arabia would require the support of two-thirds of the Senate — a tall task given Republican reluctance to give Biden a foreign policy victory and major Democratic concern over Riyadh’s human rights record.

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