As the US intensifies its efforts to bring about peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia, pressure on Jerusalem to make concessions to the Palestinians has also grown in recent days.
Israeli-Saudi normalization has long been conditional on some kind of tangible progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. As The Jerusalem Post has reported in recent months, Riyadh is looking for a greater concession than Jerusalem made in conjunction with the 2020 Abraham Accords, when Israel agreed to drop its plan to apply sovereignty to West Bank settlements and normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates.
The Saudis are looking for concrete steps toward Palestinian statehood. Therefore, a commitment not to annex settlements for the next four years, as Israel Hayom reported on Monday, would not suffice for the Saudis, according to multiple diplomatic sources.
Saudi demands related to the Palestinians run counter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s messaging. Even before the Abraham Accords, Netanyahu tried to decouple the Palestinian issue from normalization with the Arab world. Countries in the region value Israel’s technological prowess and military might, and they seek an alliance against Iran, he said.
While that remains true, the Palestinian cause still carries some cache in Arab capitals. In the case of Riyadh, though Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the active ruler, King Salman has insisted on a sweetener for the Palestinians in any agreement with Israel.
Netanyahu’s governing coalition is made up of parties that oppose Palestinian statehood, and their members have begun to speak out against possible steps in that direction.
Coalition may oppose Israeli concessions to Palestinians
National Missions Minister Orit Struck (Religious Zionist Party) on Monday said her party “certainly won’t agree” to concessions to the Palestinians.
“We are done with withdrawals,” she told KAN News. “We are done freezing settlements in Judea and Samaria. This is the consensus among the entire right wing.”
The Biden administration has been pushing Israel to do more for the Palestinians to market its normalization push domestically, an American diplomatic source said, confirming the KAN News report.
The elements that the Saudis seek from the US within the framework of such a deal – including weapons sales, a mutual defense treaty, a civilian nuclear program, and economic benefits – would be a tough sell to Democrats, who have spoken out on human-rights issues in the kingdom, especially after the murder of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Washington is also pushing for the deal to be completed by the end of 2023 to avoid a prolonged fight in Congress about the benefits for the Saudis during an election year.
National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, however, on Monday said he shares US President Joe Biden’s assessment, which was reported by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on Friday, that “there is a long road ahead, [but] there is a possibility to advance this matter.”
Israel is not currently engaged in talks with the Saudis, but it receives “reports and full transparency” from the US, he said.
Regarding benefits for the Saudis, Hanegbi said: “The Americans have to decide what is right for them [to give to Riyadh] in this context… Israel will not concede anything that will erode its security.”
Discussions about an Israel-Saudi peace deal reached a new pitch over the weekend, with Biden’s comment to Friedman and his remark at a 2024 reelection campaign event that “there’s a rapprochement that may be under way.”
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited Jeddah “to discuss bilateral and regional matters, including initiatives to advance a common vision for a more peaceful, secure, prosperous and stable Middle East region interconnected with the world,” the White House said.
Netanyahu said a high-speed train project the government launched on Sunday could “be able to connect Israel by train to Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula. We are working on that, too.”
Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Yuli Edelstein (Likud) on Sunday said it was premature to discuss a deal.
If there will be one, “there are clauses that are far more important or problematic than declarations in the Palestinian realm… There are some things we can live with better and some things we can live with less well,” he told Army Radio.
Meanwhile, Iran on Monday expressed opposition to a Saudi-Israel deal. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said normalization would harm regional peace and stability.
Reuters contributed to this report.