Updated Apr 3, 2024 - World

Sullivan postpones trip to Saudi Arabia to discuss Israel mega-deal

Biden and MBS

Biden meets with MBS in Riyadh in July 2022. Photo: Royal Court of Saudi Arabia / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan postponed a planned trip to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about a potential mega-deal that would include Saudi normalization with Israel.

The latest: White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Sullivan was recovering from a "cracked rib," which has affected his ability to travel. Kirby said it was a "minor accident of his own" and "was not caused by anybody."

Why it matters: With the war in Gaza ongoing and the U.S. presidential election just seven months away, White House officials admit there's a slim chance they can pull off the historic peace agreement. Sullivan's planned trip indicates President Biden is still determined to pursue it.

Behind the scenes: The White House continues to work toward a draft U.S.-Saudi defense treaty and understandings related to U.S. support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program, according to four U.S. and Israeli officials.

  • U.S. officials hope to reach a bilateral agreement with the Saudis and then possibly present it to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose side of the deal would include committing to a path toward a two-state solution.
  • Netanyahu would then face a choice: If he agrees, he could broke a historic peace deal with Saudi Arabia. If he says no, he could be exposed as a rejectionist and lose whatever U.S. support he still has left.
  • The White House declined to comment. The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

What they're saying: "There has been lot of progress in the talks between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia about their draft defense treaty. They want to have their side of the deal ready and then put it on our table and say, 'Take it or leave it," a senior Israeli official told Axios.

Zoom in: Last week, Biden made clear he still thinks the Saudi mega-deal is achievable and relevant, despite talks being derailed by Hamas' Oct. 7 terrorist attack and Israel's military operation in Gaza.

  • "I won't go into detail now. But look, I've been working with the Saudis. ... They are prepared to fully recognize Israel," Biden said at a fundraiser in New York with former Presidents Obama and Clinton last week.
  • "But ... there has to be a post-Gaza plan here, and there has to be a train to a two-state solution. Doesn't have to occur today, but it has a progression. I think we can do that," Biden mused.

Reality check: Many in the White House think the Saudi mega-deal is a pipe dream, citing the war in Gaza, Netanyahu's dependence on his radical right-wing coalition partners, and U.S. domestic politics.

  • The Saudis have made clear that in order to move forward on normalization with Israel, the war in Gaza must end and the Israeli government must commit to an irreversible path for a two-state solution.
  • Netanyahu doesn't seem to be moving toward ending the war. And he not only opposes a two-state solution, but rejects the mere idea of allowing the Palestinian Authority to have a role in governing Gaza on the day after the war.

What to watch: Even if a deal is reached, the Senate will have to ratify the defense treaty with Saudi Arabia and possibly the nuclear understandings.

  • This will be close to impossible in the current political climate in Washington. It's unclear if enough Democrats will support a deal that will be seen as a win for both MBS and Netanyahu.
  • On the other side, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told the White House he can whip most Senate Republicans to vote in favor. But former President Trump may intervene to stop Republicans from giving Biden a win ahead of the election.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that Sullivan's trip was postponed.

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