Sullivan: No Saudi deal without Israeli normalization

The Biden administration has been pushing for a defense deal with the Saudis that includes Riyadh joining the Abraham Accords.

By Joshua Marks, JNS

The White House reiterated on Saturday that any Saudi-U.S. defense agreement would include Israel normalization, against the backdrop of a report last week that the two issues could be decoupled.

Speaking at the Financial Times Weekend Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told FT journalist Edward Luce that “you can’t disentangle one piece from the others.”

The question was asked after a report in The Guardian on May 1 that Riyadh was pushing for a “plan B” bilateral defense deal that sidelines establishing diplomatic relations with Jerusalem should a Gaza ceasefire not be concluded and the Netanyahu government not commit to a pathway to a Palestinian state.

Jerusalem is preparing for a major military offensive in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah should Hamas reject the latest truce proposal.

Palestinian statehood is opposed by a majority of the Israeli public and by the government, given Ramallah’s support for terrorism.

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The Biden administration has been pushing for a defense deal with the Saudis that includes Riyadh joining the Abraham Accords.

The president’s team has also consistently emphasized the importance of concessions to the Palestinians as part of any pact.

The Saudis froze Israeli normalization talks after the Hamas-led attack of Oct. 7 and the ensuing war in Gaza, but have maintained that they are still open to a deal.

Conflicting reports have emerged from the kingdom on the importance of the Palestinian issue to securing an agreement, although official statements from Washington and Riyadh have stressed that it is essential.

“The integrated vision is a bilateral understanding between the United States and Saudi Arabia combined with normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, combined with meaningful steps on behalf of the Palestinian people,” Sullivan said. “All of that has to come together…you can’t disentangle one piece from the others.”

Sullivan’s remarks follow similar comments by State Department spokesman Matthew Miller at a press briefing in Washington on May 2 that any security pact between the United States and Saudi Arabia would be contingent on a normalization agreement between Riyadh and Jerusalem.

“In the potential normalization agreement that we were talking about with Saudi Arabia, there are several components,” Miller said. “One component is a package of agreements between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Another component is normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. And another package would be a path to two states for the Palestinian people.”

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“All of them are linked together,” Miller added. “None go forward without the others.”

U.S. President Joe Biden has dispatched his diplomatic arsenal to the Middle East region several times since the Oct. 7 attack to attempt to calm the flames and also to push for the vision of a more integrated region with increased normalization between Israel and its neighbors, with the Saudis as the centerpiece of that plan.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week made his seventh trip to the Middle East since Oct. 7 to meet with Israeli and Arab leaders, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, notably saying that the U.S.-Saudi part of the package is “potentially very close to completion” and adding that the most significant obstacle to normalization is the path to a two-state solution and the lack of a ceasefire in Gaza.

However, Saudi Arabia has already decided to normalize relations with Israel and is debating the timing of the announcement, according to a report last week in Haaretz, citing a foreign diplomat familiar with the details.

“The question is when, and the decision on the timing should be made within days,” the diplomat said.

The source said that the kingdom would only demand guarantees on progress towards achieving a pathway to Palestinian statehood in return for establishing diplomatic ties with Jerusalem.

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Then-Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said last August that the Palestinian issue was not a major obstacle for MBS to reaching a detente with Jerusalem.

Sullivan on Saturday also added that Biden intends to give a more detailed vision of the pathway to a more peaceful Middle East region.

“I do expect in the months ahead that you will hear from the president and others of us more of the … path that we believe could produce a more secure Israel and a more peaceful region,” Sullivan said.

He added: “All we can do is work out what we think makes sense, [and] try to get as many countries in the region on board with it and then present it, and it will ultimately be up to the Israeli leadership and frankly ultimately the Israeli people can decide whether that’s a path they want to take or not.”