Inside story'Without deal, his legacy could be solely defined by Oct. 7'

US split over whether Netanyahu capable of accepting Palestinian component of Saudi deal

Key White House figures believe PM will show flexibility to salvage legacy, while others in State Dept think he’s too ideologically entrenched and beholden to far-right partners

Jacob Magid

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

File - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2024. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)
File - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2024. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

WASHINGTON — Despite the Gaza war’s evisceration of Israel’s image throughout the Arab world, Saudi Arabia has continued holding high-level discussions with the White House in recent weeks aimed at brokering a normalization agreement with Jerusalem, three US officials told The Times of Israel.

Significant obstacles remain, and any possible deal would hinge on securing a temporary truce in Gaza through a long-elusive hostage deal between Israel and Hamas, the officials clarified.

Still, they all asserted that the gaps between Washington and Riyadh are bridgeable.

Where the US officials said the administration is more divided is on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be prepared to advance the cause of Palestinian statehood to get the Saudis on board.

The details of what the Palestinian element of the deal will be are still being finalized, but it will require Israel to take concrete steps aimed at establishing a pathway to an eventual Palestinian state, the officials said.

Over much of his years in power, Netanyahu has spoken of his ability to thwart international efforts to promote a two-state solution. Since October 7, those boasts have only grown.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, March 20, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

“Everyone knows that I am the one who for decades blocked the establishment of a Palestinian state that would endanger our existence,” the premier said in February.

It’s familiarity with his political maneuvering that has led some senior members of the administration to conclude that Netanyahu is incapable of making the kinds of concessions necessary, even if doing so would secure the normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia that he has long pursued, the officials said.

However, others in the administration believe that faced with a choice between an agreement with Saudi Arabia — which would include Riyadh serving as something of a guarantor for the reconstruction of Gaza and the reform of the Palestinian Authority along with other Arab allies — or a scenario in which Israel is left alone to manage the enclave where Hamas will remain the most dominant Palestinian force, Netanyahu will ultimately choose the former.

“Those are the options. No one in the region is going to bail Israel out in Gaza if it’s not in the context of the diplomatic initiative that we’re trying to promote, and you cannot defeat Hamas only through military means,” said one of the US officials, who all spoke to The Times of Israel last week on condition of anonymity.

US President Joe Biden meets with his top cabinet and national security officials to discuss Iran’s attacks on Israel, at the White House, April 13, 2024. (White House)

Getting Bibi to ‘Yes’

Just as the Palestinian component is seen as essential to the normalization deal, given sensitivity to the Palestinian cause in Saudi Arabia and among Congressional progressives; the normalization deal is viewed as critical for getting a major defense agreement between Washington and Riyadh over the finish line, given the need to placate both pro-Israel Republicans who are less inclined to back a deal crafted by a Democratic White House, alongside Democrats who have been critical of the Gulf kingdom’s human rights record.

The US officials said there are outstanding issues regarding the legally enshrined defense guarantees Saudi Arabia is seeking in addition to US support for a civilian nuclear program, but they said significant progress has been made on both fronts in recent months.

Accordingly, the US-Saudi bilateral part of the deal is further along than the normalization part, with Netanyahu showing no indication that he’d be prepared to accept the eventual creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state, the officials said.

This hasn’t stopped the Biden administration from proceeding with the negotiations in the hopes that it’ll soon have a proposal that can present to Netanyahu, forcing him to choose between regional integration and maintaining his far-right coalition partners who would surely jump ship if he were to accept the establishment of a future Palestinian state, no matter how theoretical, conditioned or far-off.

Far-right leaders Itamar Ben Gvir (R) and Bezalel Smotrich (L) at the ‘victory conference’ at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, January 28, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

While stressing that there are exceptions to the rule, the first US official said that the divide in the administration over whether Netanyahu will agree to the Saudi deal was largely between those in the White House and State Department officials.

“Key figures in the White House are much more optimistic than many in the State Department that Netanyahu can get to a ‘yes’ on this,” the US official said, adding that the White House’s view will ultimately be more decisive.

“Bibi clearly cares about his legacy, and accepting this kind of deal is the only thing that would prevent his from being defined almost entirely by October 7,” a second US official argued, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

“He’s not being asked to accept the creation of a Palestinian state tomorrow, and the guarantees Israel will be receiving from us and the Arabs will provide them with more security than they have today,” the second official added.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if we thought the plan would just end up sitting in a drawer,” the official continued, insisting that the goal was not simply to present this as a “thought exercise.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas poses for a picture with the new Palestinian government after it was sworn in on March 31, 2024, in Ramallah, in the West Bank. (Jaafar ASHTIYEH / AFP)

And while the US talks with Saudi Arabia began well before October 7, the appetite for a normalization deal in Washington has only expanded since, as the increased Saudi involvement in the Palestinian arena that the deal would require is seen as essential for getting Israel to a place in which it feels secure enough to draw its war against Hamas to a close, the second US official said.

But a third US official was much more pessimistic, asserting that Netanyahu’s opposition to Palestinian statehood was ideological and doesn’t just stem from fears that his coalition partners will abandon him.

“He’ll put off making a decision until it is too late,” the official said, noting that the window to secure a deal is closing, given that Congress needs time to authorize the US-Saudi bilateral component.

The official also noted that support on the Hill for such a deal is not what it was before October 7, as far-right and far-left flanks of both parties that become increasingly hostile to Israel.

“The idea that [former US president Donald] Trump, is going to allow Republicans to approve this months before an election also seems a bit far-fetched,” the third official added.

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