'Elusive As Ever:' What Hinders Washington from Concluding the Saudi–Israeli Normalization Deal?

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American officials have been making successive statements about the approaching normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and “Israel,” a deal that the Joe Biden administration is striving to conclude before the November 2024 presidential elections. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently rejected these efforts.

Netanyahu's rejection of the normalization project currently stems from Saudi Arabia's demand to halt the Israeli aggression on Gaza since October 7, 2023, in addition to paving the way for the establishment of a Palestinian state, making the deal difficult to implement.

Out of Reach 

In the latest developments on this issue, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday, May 22, 2024, said the United States and Saudi Arabia were very close to concluding a set of agreements on nuclear energy, and security and defense cooperation, which are part of a wider normalization deal with Riyadh and “Israel.”

Speaking at a hearing in the House of Representatives, Blinken said the finalizing of the agreements "could be weeks away" but cautioned that for the wider normalization to proceed, there must be peace in Gaza and the formulation of a pathway for Palestinian statehood.

The day before these statements, Blinken told the House Appropriations Committee, "Those agreements are in principle very close to being able to be concluded. Now of course we will come to Congress with them when they're ready to be reviewed, but we're — could be really weeks away from being able to conclude them.

"However, in order for normalization to proceed, Saudi Arabia has made very clear that even with the agreements between us completed, they have to have two things: they have to have calm in Gaza, and they have to have a credible pathway to a Palestinian state," Blinken added.

According to Blinken's statements, the ball is now in Israeli court despite his skepticism about Netanyahu's intentions and the Israeli Occupation's ability to do what is necessary to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan discussed in Saudi Arabia the "near-final draft of the strategic agreements" between their countries, which are nearing completion, according to the Official Saudi Press Agency on May 19.

The agency added that they also discussed "what is being worked on between the two sides regarding the Palestinian issue to find a credible path towards a two-state solution that meets the aspirations and legitimate rights of the Palestinian people."

According to a report by Alhurra TV on May 22, Netanyahu's insistence on rejecting the establishment of a Palestinian state is the main reason Washington's vision of a "grand deal" in the Middle East remains "out of reach."

Moving the Ball Forward

As for America's ability to complete normalization, Washington-based international conflict resolution professor, Mohammed Cherkaoui, said, "Blinken's words can be placed in the American context before the international context between Saudi Arabia and Israel."

Cherkaoui explained during an interview with Russia Today (RT) on May 22 that "the Secretary of State spoke optimistically about the normalization decision between Israel and Saudi Arabia before the House of Representatives, and we know that sitting in this platform or in the Senate is a moment of accountability for [Joe] Biden's team's performance before any other party."

Based on that, Cherkaoui believes that "it was imperative for Blinken to throw the ball forward, as he was criticized for not managing the war in Gaza well and not doing enough to broker a deal for the exchange of Israeli hostages with Palestinian prisoners or to reach either a sustainable ceasefire or a cessation of hostilities."

“Therefore, Blinken is working to expand the scope of the imaginary normalization he envisions between Saudi Arabia and Israel to show that there is dynamism in this policy, meaning that the normalization issue is tripartite rather than bilateral, meaning that this is part of a trilateral deal with the United States."

Cherkaoui pointed out that "Riyadh wants to obtain a preferential status close to NATO membership and also to obtain arms deals and so on, but can Blinken guarantee that there will be Saudi–Israeli normalization after two weeks or ten days?

"The answer to that is no, because even U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who recently met Netanyahu, realizes the reality of the difficulties, and he returned empty-handed from his meeting with the latter."

Cherkaoui confirmed that "Sullivan has come to a realization, that despite the war entering its eighth month and an [anticipated] decision by the International Criminal Court, Netanyahu does not offer a real vision to end the war or at least a clear Israeli strategy to manage this conflict."

On May 20, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, announced that he is seeking arrest warrants against Netanyahu and Army Minister Yoav Gallant on charges of committing crimes including "starvation," "intentional killing," "extermination and murder."

The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court added that “Israel” committed "crimes against humanity," accusing it of launching "a wide-ranging and systematic attack against Palestinian civilians."

Israeli Rejection 

On the other hand, Israeli statements conflicted regarding the importance of normalization with Saudi Arabia, sponsored by the United States. While some Israeli officials call for the necessity of completing the deal, others see it as insignificant at the moment.

On May 21, Israeli President Isaac Herzog called on “Israel” to seriously consider normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia, describing the move as a "game-changer," after Netanyahu rejected any agreement that stipulates the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“This is a move that could bring about tremendous change, a historic ‘game-changer’ that constitutes a victory over the empire of evil. I very much hope that this possibility is being seriously considered, as the empire of evil sought on October 7 to destroy the chance for normalization,” he declares.

In contrast, Israeli Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, Eli Cohen, stated that “Israel” should focus on maintaining its security, rather than negotiating normalization agreements with Saudi Arabia.

Cohen pointed out during an interview with a local Hebrew radio station on May 22 that "a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia is not important at the moment, and it can wait," stressing that "security precedes peace, and no one makes peace agreements with the weak in the Middle East, and the main thing we need to focus on now is security."

The former Israeli Foreign Minister added that "the Americans want to achieve two things: stopping the war and reaching a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia. They want a political achievement before their elections."

In the same context, Israeli Army Minister Yoav Gallant stated on May 20 that a Palestinian state will not be established neither during our government's term nor in any other future government.

Gallant added during a Likud party meeting that any Arab state normalizing relations with Israel and claiming it was promised a Palestinian state is lying to its people to justify normalization.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan confirmed during a meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister on May 19 that there is a possibility of normalization with Saudi Arabia if the Israeli state agrees to a path leading to a future Palestinian state.

However, Netanyahu reiterated his firm rejection of establishing a Palestinian state, saying that he would not accept a Palestinian state, even one that comes with the Saudi normalization agreement.

This came after Sullivan held talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on May 18, before heading directly to “Israel” to meet Netanyahu and other senior officials.