Barbara Leaf downplays reports of imminent Saudi-Israeli normalization

‘There’s a lot of misreporting and a lot of hyperventilation in the press, a lot of excitable rumint, I would say, in the press, especially in the Israeli press,’ the top Mideast diplomat said


Barbara Leaf, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, speaks to reporters at a media roundtable in Kuwait City on October 19, 2022.

Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, downplayed recent reports indicating that Israel and Saudi Arabia are close to reaching a normalization agreement.

“There’s a lot of misreporting and a lot of hyperventilation in the press, a lot of excitable rumint, I would say, in the press, especially in the Israeli press. They’re just electric with the idea that Saudi Arabia might take that step,” Leaf told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Wednesday. 

Saudi-Israeli normalization “is an end goal for us” and “it’s fair to say the crown prince [of Saudi Arabia] has been very candid… that that is very much on his mind,” Leaf added, referring to Saudi Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman.

Leaf noted that “we also see plenty of space to get things done” in expanding connections between the two nations short of full normalization. Axios reported last month that the Biden administration is seeking full normalization by the end of the year.

Leaf had been questioned on the subject by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), the chair of the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and Central Asia subcommittee, who has also been one of the most vocal critics of Saudi Arabia in Congress because of its human rights record and has sought on multiple occasions to cut off U.S. weapons sales to Riyadh.

Murphy called a potential normalization agreement “a pivotal and immensely positive development” and said the U.S. “should be actively engaged in trying to help make that happen.” But he sought assurances that security guarantees to Saudi Arabia — which the kingdom has reportedly demanded — would require Senate ratification.

Leaf responded that “we’re very mindful of the right and left limits of what becomes a treaty versus something else.”

Several of Murphy’s Democratic colleagues in the House had expressed concerns to Jewish Insider last week about potential arms sales to and expanded nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia, some of the kingdom’s other reported demands.

Earlier in the hearing, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) pressed Leaf on why the administration’s 2024 budget request did not include more specific funding requests related to expanding the Abraham Accords.

Leaf responded that many of the projects that have come out of the Accords do not require direct U.S. funding, but noted that the administration has also requested $90 million for a Middle East and North Africa Opportunity Fund, which she said could be tapped for seed money for Accords-related projects. 

“We have a lot… going on in the diplomatic space that isn’t yet visible, frankly,” she added.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a critic of Israeli policy, raised a recent Washington Post report on “extrajudicial killings” by Israeli agents during a March raid in Jenin in the West Bank. Van Hollen alluded to the prospect of restricting U.S. aid to Israel, asking whether the unit involved in the incident had been investigated for under the Leahy Law, which bars aid to foreign security force units involved in gross violations of human rights. Leaf said she did not have that information offhand. Van Hollen requested a full list of all Israeli units investigated under the Leahy Law. 

He also threatened to “use whatever powers I have here in ways that I’ve never done before” if he was not given access to a new U.S. report on the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by the end of the week. Van Hollen has been seeking access to that report for some time and said that he had “ran out of patience” and was “at the end of my rope.” Leaf apologized and said that the report would be provided “shortly.”

On Lebanon, which is in the midst of an ongoing political and economic crisis, Leaf said that the U.S. is evaluating potential sanctions on members of the current Lebanese government, as well as working with regional and European partners to “push the Lebanese parliament to do its job.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told Leaf that he’s “really worried” about the expansions in Latin America of Hezbollah, whose “level of activity in the Americas is picking up.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) accused the administration of violating “the spirit, if not the letter, of the Taylor Force Act” by providing humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. He also questioned Leaf on why the administration had waived visa restrictions on Palestine Liberation Organization officials to allow them to visit the U.S. for meetings with State Department officials.

“We brought the delegation here to the United States to have discussions that would go to a number of interests that we have — go to Israel’s security, frankly,” Leaf responded.

Leaf reiterated previous public comments by administration officials downplaying the significance of a recent normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, facilitated by China. 

She emphasized that the deal was a “detente,” not “a big rapprochement or a full normalization”; that it was “was not brokered by the Chinese — they hosted it, the Iranians and the Saudis did all of the agreements and the discussions themselves”; that “it did not entirely surprise us”; and that it does not “alter our own very robust engagement with… the Saudis.”

She also said that the deal puts “the Chinese… on the hook to help police Iranian actions,” and that Saudi Arabia is “very clear-eyed about the prospects for getting a sudden change in Iranian behavior.”

Leaf was more positive about talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, which she said are in their “endgame” and may potentially soon move to an international U.N.-mediated forum.

Murphy and Cardin raised questions about the U.S.’ military aid to Egypt, given ongoing concerns about human rights and corruption in the country. Murphy questioned whether the U.S. should “take a fresh look” at this aid. Cardin asked why the administration had not included human rights conditions — which Congress has approved in recent years — in its budget proposal for aid to Egypt, a decision Cardin said had put Congress “in a difficult position.”

“We do each have our separate roles,” Leaf responded. “The work that Congress does in this space sends a powerful signal to the Egyptian government… Generally speaking, across the board, we seek assistance that is unconditioned, that we can use flexibly.”

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