analysisMiddle East

Saudis eye rapid Israel normalization

Riyadh hopes to generate bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate before a possible Trump re-election.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, March 7, 2022. Credit: Murathakan Art/Shutterstock.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, March 7, 2022. Credit: Murathakan Art/Shutterstock.

As the Biden administration renews efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, a key factor driving the urgency is Saudi Arabia’s desire to finalize a normalization deal with Israel before the possible return of Donald Trump to the White House, according to officials and analysts.

The Saudi leadership is eager to reach an agreement that would include a security pact with the United States, civilian nuclear assistance and diplomatic recognition of Israel—a transformative moment for a region that long ostracized the Jewish state.

However, the Saudis insist that Israel commit to a concrete plan for an eventual Palestinian state within a deadline, something Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected.

With an eye on the U.S. political calendar, the Saudis want to move in the next couple of weeks, hoping to generate bipartisan support in the Senate before the November election. The New York Times reports that if Trump reclaims the presidency, the chances of Democrats in the Senate voting for a deal with Saudi Arabia could vanish.

“The Saudis were very up front,” said Steven A. Cook of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations after a recent trip to Saudi Arabia. “This is make or break, this is the moment.”

The Saudi urgency adds impetus to the U.S. administration’s push for a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that controls Gaza. Officials fear that if Israel proceeds with a threatened assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, civilian casualties could scuttle any short-term chances of peace.

“If Sinwar [the Hamas leader in Gaza] is ready for a [ceasefire-for-hostages-and-terrorists] deal, it will happen,” said Dennis B. Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I suspect the administration believes if Israel does Rafah, nothing will be possible.”

The administration is testing its proposition with a renewed regional push. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, where he promoted what he called an “extraordinarily generous” offer by Israel to accept the release of fewer hostages in the first stage of an agreement. 

Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister, said he was “hopeful” about the latest ceasefire proposal, which was set to be discussed in a new round of talks in Cairo starting on Tuesday.

While the diplomacy intensifies, the Biden administration faces pressure from college campus protests over the war in Gaza. Protesters have accused the president of supporting genocide, though the White House has expressed support for peaceful protest while condemning antisemitism against Jewish students.

Biden’s national security aides are trying to tune out the noise and find the right combination of moves to halt the war, at least temporarily. “Clearly the president feels a sense of urgency,” said Cook.

The window may be short. “The Israelis seem to be softening their posture, and the Saudis seem to have put their offer of normalization on the table, and Hamas is sounding more positive,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “So, it’s looking better than it has for several weeks.”

But uncertainties remain, including the intentions of Sinwar, who has blocked previous ceasefire efforts. American officials are relying on intermediaries such as Qatar and Egypt to communicate with Hamas leaders outside Gaza who can then reach Sinwar.

As the diplomatic Rubik’s Cube grows more intricate, the Biden team faces an additional wrinkle: Israeli worries that the International Criminal Court will issue arrest warrants for senior officials over the conduct of the Gaza war, a move the White House has rejected.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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