update deskMiddle East

White House denies agreement on outline for Israel-Saudi deal

"There's no agreed framework to codify the normalization," says U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. President Joe Biden. Source: U.S. State Department/Joe Biden via Facebook.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. President Joe Biden. Source: U.S. State Department/Joe Biden via Facebook.

The White House on Wednesday downplayed claims that Riyadh had agreed to the “broad contours” of a normalization deal with Israel.

“There’s no agreed framework to codify the normalization or any of the other security considerations that we and our friends have in the region,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told journalists on a press call.

Earlier on Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. and Saudi officials were “negotiating the details of an agreement they hope to cement within nine-to-12 months.”

Sources cited by the newspaper said it would be “the most momentous Middle East peace deal in a generation,” the Journal reported. They cautioned, however, that the deal still faces long odds.

Efforts accelerated with a visit by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to Saudi Arabia on May 7 where he met with Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s crown prince (known as MBS).

U.S. officials said it would take nine- to-12 months to work out the finer details of an agreement and negotiators are already discussing specifics, including American help for a Saudi civilian nuclear program, along with security guarantees and concessions for Palestinians.

Washington in return is asking Riyadh to place limits on its burgeoning ties with China, with the United States likely to request assurances that the Saudis wouldn’t let China build military bases on their territory.

Limits on Saudi use of Chinese technology and a commitment to use U.S. currency and not the Chinese yuan may also be part of the negotiations.

MBS has sent “conflicting messages” about his readiness to normalize relations with Israel, telling his advisers “that he was in no rush, especially with the current hard-line coalition government in Israel that opposes the creation of an independent Palestinian state,” the Journal reported.

Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said negotiators have not broached specifics with Israeli leaders. One stumbling block may be what concessions to the Palestinians the U.S. and Saudi Arabia expect Jerusalem to make.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview with Bloomberg Television broadcast last week that it’s not as big an issue as people think.

He expressed confidence that his government could achieve some form of normalization with Saudi Arabia in the coming months.

“I think that we are about to witness a pivot of history,” Netanyahu told Bloomberg’s Francine Lacqua. “First, there is an economic corridor of energy, transport and communications that naturally goes through our geography from Asia through the Arabian Peninsula to Europe.

“We are going to realize that,” vowed the prime minister, adding, “Saudi Arabia is one of the exceptional things that tells you why I’m very optimistic about Israel.”

“If there is a political will, there will be a political way to achieve normalization and formal peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia. That has enormous economic consequences for the investors and if they have to bet on it right now, I’d bet on it,” Netanyahu said. 

On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen published an op-ed in the Journal in which he argued that U.S. defense guarantees under an Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement would make Gulf states’ nuclear ambitions “unnecessary.”

The Americans would be able to provide protection against Iranian aggression in the region, said Cohen, adding: “[A] defense pledge could reassure Middle Eastern nations, primarily Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. This approach would make individual nuclear ambitions unnecessary, bolster regional stability, and promote the peace and normalization agenda.”

Cohen continued: “A united front, bringing together moderate Sunni nations and Israel, would be an effective check on Iran’s growing ambitions.”

Israel’s top diplomat earlier this week said that the Palestinian issue will not be an obstacle to normalizing relations with Riyadh.

“The current Israeli government will take steps to improve the Palestinian economy,” he stated.

“A visit to Israel by a Saudi foreign minister would be a day of celebration,” Cohen remarked, noting that governments led by Netanyahu had secured diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco as part of the 2020 Trump administration-brokered Abraham Accords.

The Israeli premier and the Saudi crown prince will make history together, Cohen predicted.

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