US wants Israel to shelve judicial overhaul in return for Saudi normalization — TV

Report also claims both Washington and Riyadh are conditioning potential establishment of diplomatic ties on Israel restarting peace talks with Palestinians

File: US President Joe Biden meets then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (right) at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. At left is Secretary of State Antony Blinken; 2nd-left is US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. (GPO)
File: US President Joe Biden meets then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (right) at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. At left is Secretary of State Antony Blinken; 2nd-left is US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. (GPO)

The White House reportedly wants Israel to halt its judicial overhaul and restart peace talks with the Palestinian Authority in order for the US to move forward with brokering normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Reports have swirled in recent days that Jerusalem and Riyadh are in the midst of negotiations over direct flights between the nations that have the potential to lead to a wider normalization deal — which has long been sought by Israel but largely rejected by the Saudis.

An unsourced Channel 12 news report Tuesday evening said the US and the Saudis have enumerated their demands for such an agreement moving forward. The report 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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu halt his government’s controversial judicial overhaul plan.

On Friday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told the Arab League that “the Palestinian issue was and remains the central issue for Arab countries, and it is at the top of the kingdom’s priorities.”

The Saudis are also reportedly 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.

A full normalization deal, the report claims, would offer Israel in exchange full US backing for its actions against Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

File: In this photo released by the Saudi Royal Palace, 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, File)

In 2020, Israel agreed to freeze a plan to annex wide swaths of the West Bank in exchange for the Abraham Accords which normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and later Morocco.

Channel 12 reported Tuesday that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan are involved in the negotiations alongside Mossad chief David Barnea and “very senior officials” close to bin Salman.

The TV network cited a senior Israeli official as saying that a normalization deal would be a “gamechanger for Israeli security,” and that there is “potential for a deal,” but it will require courage from Netanyahu, Biden and bin Salman.

On Monday, the channel reported that the Saudis were pressuring Israel to hand certain powers in the West Bank from the IDF to the Palestinian Authority forces, give the PA forces security-related authority at the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City — far-reaching steps that are highly unlikely to be approved by Israel’s hard-right government.

National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi speaks at the Herzliya Conference at Reichman University on May 23, 2023. (Gilad Kavalerchik)

Speaking at a conference on Tuesday, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi denied that there had been any direct conversations between Netanyahu and 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.

“There’s a good chance we can advance a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia,” Cohen said. “I assume there is definitely a chance in half a year, or in the coming year.”

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.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at a ceremony in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

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, as the two countries have confronted a shared threat in Iran.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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