Tom Friedman in NYT specifies Saudi demands of Israel

US ‘very close’ to bilateral deal with Saudis, but it hinges on Israel normalization

State Department spokesperson says ‘still more work to be done;’ Report says Saudis demanding Israeli exit from Gaza, settlement freeze and 3-5 year pathway to Palestinian state

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

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan (R) receives US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretariat in Riyadh on April 29, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/AFP)
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan (R) receives US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretariat in Riyadh on April 29, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/AFP)

The United States and Saudi Arabia are “very close” to reaching a deal that would provide Riyadh with security assurances from Washington while moving the Gulf kingdom away from US rivals, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Thursday.

However, he clarified that the deal hinges on a normalization component that would require Israel to agree to create a pathway for a future Palestinian state. “There is still more work to be done” on that aspect, Miller acknowledged. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed no interest in such concessions before the Hamas-led October 7 attack that triggered the Gaza war, and he has only doubled down on this stance since, saying that it would amount to a victory for Palestinian terror.

“We are very close to reaching an agreement on the bilateral pieces of the package between the United States and Saudi Arabia. There are a few details that we have to continue to work through, but we think we can reach agreement on those details in a very short order,” Miller said.

Three US officials told The Times of Israel last month that the Saudis have continued holding high-level discussions with the White House aimed at brokering a normalization agreement with Jerusalem, despite the Israel-Hamas war’s eviscerating effect on Israel’s global standing.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the diplomatic initiative with Arab counterparts when he was in Riyadh on Monday. “We were looking at not just a path to two states, but also the reconstruction of Gaza, governance of Gaza, security for Gaza. Some pieces are further along than others… We hope to make progress on that and have the agreements ready to put forward as soon as possible,” Miller said.

While the US could reach an agreement with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries regarding the terms of the regional diplomatic initiative to present to Israel, Riyadh has been clear that it will not sign off on the deal unless there is calm in Gaza and a path to an independent Palestinian state, according to Miller.

“We might reach an agreement with Saudi Arabia on what this package will look like, but in terms of an actual deal that includes normalization with Israel, there needs to be calm in Gaza,” he said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, May 1, 2024. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Asked why the US was putting so much effort into this initiative if Netanyahu was likely to reject it, Miller said the US believed the approach of regional integration was in Israel’s best interests because it would provide broader security for the Jewish state, isolate Iran in the region and provide Israel with partners to assist in the rebuilding of Gaza. “Ultimately, the government of Israel will have to make the choice about what’s in the best interest of their people.”

The State Department spokesperson denied reports that either the US or Saudi Arabia would support a deal that wouldn’t include the normalization component. “We have been very clear, Saudi Arabia has been very clear, that this is a package deal that would include a bilateral component and also include a path to two states.”

In an Op-Ed published Friday in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman outlined the specific demands from the Saudis.

“Get out of Gaza, freeze the building of settlements in the West Bank and embark on a three- to five-year ‘pathway’ to establish a Palestinian state” in the West Bank and Gaza.

Friedman said that state “would also be conditioned on the Palestinian Authority undertaking reforms to make it a governing body that Palestinians trust and see as legitimate and Israelis see as effective.”

Friedman also said that “the US and the Saudis are considering finalizing the deal and taking it to Congress with the stated proviso that Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Israel the minute Israel has a government ready to meet the Saudi-US terms.”

While in Tel Aviv earlier this week, Blinken told Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders that a hostage deal must be reached soon if Jerusalem still wants to ink a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia, two officials familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.

Blinken warned that the window for a deal is closing and that a major Israeli offensive in Rafah would likely shut it completely, the officials said.

The US officials who spoke to The Times of Israel last month said the remaining gaps between Washington and Riyadh are bridgeable. Where the US officials said the administration was more divided was on whether Netanyahu would be prepared to advance the cause of Palestinian statehood to get the Saudis on board.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas attends the World Economic Forum Special Meeting in Riyadh on April 28, 2024. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

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.

This hasn’t stopped the Biden administration from proceeding with the negotiations in the hopes that it’ll soon have a proposal that it 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.

Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report

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