U.S. touts progress on Saudi negotiations, acknowledges deal untenable until end of Gaza war

Despite WH touting progress on a ‘bilateral agreement,’ officials clarify that they’re still pursuing normalization with Israel


President Joe Biden (C-L) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C) arrive for the family photo during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit at a hotel in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on July 16, 2022.

Washington has made significant progress in its negotiations on a defense pact with Saudi Arabia that is also expected to include the normalization of ties between the Gulf kingdom and Israel, U.S. officials said this week. But they also made clear that a deal cannot progress until the war in Gaza dies down, and until there is a “credible pathway for the Palestinians.” 

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Monday that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are close to reaching a “near-final bilateral agreement.” On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Israeli officials are deliberating over the message National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who traveled to Saudi Arabia and Israel in recent days, brought back from Riyadh.

“The Israeli government is reflecting on what Jake reported, and we will discuss next steps with them after they consult internally,” Jean-Pierre said.

It was in Saudi Arabia, White House officials said, that Sullivan made progress; they did not communicate a similar message about moving forward in negotiations with Israel. The Biden administration and Saudi leaders have long held that a U.S.-negotiated deal to normalize ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia would require Israel to make advances toward realizing a two-state solution.

While in Israel, Sullivan briefed senior Israeli leaders about “the elements of what could be, possibly, a historic deal that we think is very much now in the realm of the possible just given the work that has been done and what is now, again, nearly complete,” a senior Biden administration official said on Tuesday. “The Israeli officials took that on board, and we’ll continue to be consulting with them.”

Sullivan “was able to make significant progress on the bilateral elements of what we believe would be a truly historic deal that would lead to a more integrated region,” Kirby said on Monday. “The effort here is designed to help get to — hopefully — get to normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.”

In the days since Sullivan returned from the Middle East, Israeli leaders have publicly suggested that Israel-Saudi normalization is close, a narrative that diverges from the Biden administration’s messaging. 

“Two days ago, I met with the U.S. national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, and heard from him what was officially announced yesterday: that there is an option for normalization with Saudi Arabia. This is a move that could bring about tremendous change, a historic ‘game-changer’ that constitutes a victory over the empire of evil,” Israeli President Isaac Herzog said on Tuesday at the Israel Democracy Institute Eli Hurvitz Conference on Economy and Society. “I very much hope that this possibility is being seriously considered, as the empire of evil sought on Oct. 7 to destroy the chance for normalization.”

But the senior Biden administration official cautioned that even though significant progress has been made, “the [Gaza] crisis needs to recede to open up space for this.” 

Another White House official told Jewish Insider on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia won’t proceed on a deal with Israel “unless Israel makes concessions on Palestinian statehood,” which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far resisted. The official also clarified that despite progress on the bilateral U.S.-Saudi aspects of the deal, Washington and Riyadh will not agree to a deal without the inclusion of Israel and the Palestinians.

Still, the senior official was optimistic that a deal that satisfies the Saudis, Israelis, the Palestinian Authority and other Arab governments in the region can be reached. 

“We think it is both in our interests, and also just the right thing to do, to basically present to the parties — not just Saudis and Israelis, but others in the region,” the official said, noting that a regional integration package was “a main topic of conversation” between President Joe Biden and King Abdullah II of Jordan, who visited Washington earlier this month. 

“We are very realistic about it, and in fact, we are not pushing it,” said the senior official. “We are basically facilitating it, and the Saudis, in terms of how they see their interests, remain very interested in this possibility, but with the emphasis that there has to be a credible pathway for the Palestinians.”

The announcement of progress on a U.S.-Saudi deal could be “an attempt by the U.S. to put pressure on Israel to accept this grand deal that they’re trying to put on the table, and this grand deal is that Israel agrees to end the war, agrees to some sort of pathway to a Palestinian state, they get normalization in return,” suggested Asher Fredman, director for Israel at the Abraham Accords Peace Institute. “Partly by signaling, ‘Hey, the deal’s moving forward whether Israel is part of it or not’ is a way of putting pressure on Israel to say, I don’t want to miss out.”

The senior administration official rejected that characterization, saying “there was no sort of ultimatum or last chance or it can’t be done.” Instead, Sullivan and other U.S. officials who visited Saudi Arabia and Israel this week communicated to the Israelis just how much work has been done, and what a deal could look like with the Palestinians included.

The details of a U.S.-Saudi defense pact remain unclear, but the senior official said it will touch on security, the economy and civil nuclear cooperation. 

“What happened on April 13,” the official said, referring to the evening of the Iranian missile assault on Israel, “I think was not only dramatic, but also just demonstrated the importance of potential for this on the security side.” 

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