Jan 10, 2024 - World

Blinken tells Bibi Saudis want peace deal, but not without two-state solution

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) during his official visit as part of Middle East Tour, in Tel Aviv, Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes the Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his official visit to Tel Aviv on Jan. 9. Photo: Handout/Kobi Gideon/Anadolu via Getty Images

Secretary of State Tony Blinken told Israeli leaders on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia wants to normalize relations with Israel after the Gaza war ends, but it won't agree to any deal if the Israeli government doesn't commit to the principle of a two-state solution, two U.S. and Israeli officials told Axios.

The big picture: Blinken also made clear to the Israeli officials that Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries won't get involved in day-after solutions for Gaza — mainly reconstruction — without a path to a future Palestinian state, the sources said.

Why it matters: The demands from Saudi Arabia align with those from the Biden administration — giving the U.S. leverage to try to get Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on board with its plan for the day after the war in Gaza.

  • If Netanyahu gets on board, he could potentially get a historic peace deal under his name. But if he doesn't, he is likely to be left on his own to take care of the crisis in Gaza.
  • A U.S. official said now is the time to plan for the day-after in Gaza and the Biden administration is trying to make it clear to Netanyahu that contrary to what he thinks, Arab countries won't help with the rebuilding of Gaza without creating a political horizon for the Palestinians.
  • While the White House wants to try and get a Saudi-Israel normalization deal by the spring — before the presidential election campaign completely consumes Biden's agenda — many U.S. officials say it is not possible in the current political environment.

Flashback: Before the Israel-Hamas war began, Biden had been pushing for a mega-deal with Saudi Arabia that included a historic peace agreement between the kingdom and Israel.

  • The deal also included upgrading U.S.-Saudi relations with a defense treaty that includes U.S. security guarantees and a deal on a civil nuclear energy program on Saudi soil.
  • But the war largely stalled progress on those efforts — and added new challenges.

Driving the news: Biden administration officials have said since early in the Gaza war that Saudi Arabia is still interested in moving ahead with normalizing ties with Israel.

  • Saudi officials have made this clear again during recent meetings Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) had with Blinken and in two other separate meetings with Sen. Lindsey Graham and with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to U.S. officials and senators who attended the meetings.
  • But Riydah has also said that in light of the war in Gaza, significant and tangible deliverables for the Palestinians are much more critical now than they were before Oct. 7, the sources said.

When Blinken met Netanyahu and members of his war cabinet on Tuesday, he told them the same message in private and elaborated more, including warning that Arab countries won't be involved in rebuilding Gaza without Israel agreeing to create a pathway for a two-state solution, according to the two U.S. and Israeli officials.

  • "If Israel wants its Arab neighbors to make the tough decisions necessary to help ensure its lasting security, Israeli leaders will have to make hard decisions themselves," Blinken told reporters after his meeting with Netanyahu.

Behind the scenes: Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) who was in the meeting between MBS and Senate Intelligence Committee delegations, told reporters on Tuesday that Riyadh wants normalization with Israel but needs to be very attentive to public opinion in the kingdom, which has become very anti-Israel and anti-American since the war in Gaza started.

  • But King said that in the Senate Intelligence Committee delegation's meeting with Netanyahu in Israel, the Israeli prime minister "didn't want to discuss the two-state solution. We raised it but he didn't respond."
  • Graham, who was also in the region recently, heard similar things from MBS and said he discussed the issue with Netanyahu. "I am optimistic," he told Axios. But he added that he believes the window of opportunity to get a deal will only be open until around June.

Reality check: The renewed push by the White House faces an uphill battle. Netanyahu's government includes ultranationalists who oppose even small overtures to the Palestinians. It's extremely unlikely they'd agree to a path toward a future Palestinian state.

  • "The problem that we have today with the current government in Israel is there is an extreme, absolutist perspective which does not work to achieve compromise and therefore you are never going to end the conflict," Prince Khalid bin Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the U.K., told the BBC on Tuesday.
  • A senior Arab diplomat told Axios he doesn't believe it is possible to get such a deal done considering the very negative attitude toward Israel in the Arab world, the policy of the current Israeli government, and the heavy lifting that would be required to get an agreement in a U.S. election year.

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