U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan lowered expectations for the Saudi-Israel normalization agreement that Washington is working on, rejecting news reports that suggest it is imminent.
"There is still a ways to travel with respect to all of the elements of those discussions," Sullivan said during a briefing for reporters Tuesday.
In past months, Sullivan and his deputies have begun separate negotiations with the Saudis and Israelis to lay groundwork for a deal.
Peace between the two countries would be "a big deal" and benefit the U.S. "in a fundamental way," Sullivan said, highlighting the goal of a "more integrated, more stable Middle East" where countries could collaborate on "everything from economics to technology to regional security."
He declined to comment on a potential meeting between President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in New Delhi next month.
Talk of normalization began under the administration of President Donald Trump, who leaned on Saudi Arabia to join other Arab states – United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco – in signing the 2020 U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords that recognize Israel.
Since the Accords, Riyadh's ties with Israel have incrementally warmed, allowing Biden in July 2022 to become the first American president to fly directly to Jeddah from Tel Aviv after the Saudi Kingdom opened its airspace to flights to and from Israel.
As negotiations continue, the parties have not publicly declared their terms, but various media reports have provided the contours of what such a deal might look like.
Israel is aiming to secure more Saudi support in deterring Iran, even as it stands to gain the most from the wider political and economic impact of normalizing relations with the Saudis, a key Arab country and opinion-maker in the Muslim world. A deal could lead to recognition from other Muslim-majority countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia.
Washington wants the Saudis to be more aligned with the U.S. in its rivalry against China and to resolve the war in Yemen, a proxy conflict between Riyadh and Tehran.
In part to secure support from his Democratic Party lawmakers in Congress, Biden may push Israel to preserve the prospects for a two-state solution with Palestinians, possibly pledging to never annex the occupied West Bank or expand Israeli settlements.
Meanwhile, for Riyadh, the deal must include protection from Iran in the form of some kind of mutual defense pact with Washington, and U.S. support for its civilian nuclear program, including in-country enrichment, as it anticipates its oil to run out.
Sullivan declined to say whether the administration would be willing to agree to those terms.
Long road ahead
"If this possible deal were a meal, the cooks right now are just assembling the ingredients and they haven't even begun to mix them together," said Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
In addition to its demands to Washington, the Saudis, unlike the Emiratis, Bahrainis and Moroccans in 2020, will likely not cut a deal that sidesteps the Palestinians, Katulis told VOA. It would push for Israeli concessions that echo the “land for peace” principle of the 2002 Saudi-led Arab League peace initiative, which conditions recognition of Israel on the creation of a Palestinian state.
However, while a U.S. security guarantee, civilian nuclear program and concession for Palestinians are desirable for the Saudis, Riyadh does not desperately need any of these, said Jonathan Rynhold, head of the political science department at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.
In this context, Riyadh is different from past signatories of the Abraham Accords that have been driven by transactional motivators: Morocco signed to secure the Trump administration’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, Sudan for its removal from Washington’s state sponsors of terrorism list and relief from massive debt.
So the key issue is whether Washington is willing to give the Saudis what they want, Rynhold told VOA.
Should the Biden administration decide it is willing to meet Riyadh’s demands, it can allow the Saudis and the Israelis to seal the deal under their terms or push toward some minimal Israeli concession toward the Palestinians that "makes it clear to the Democrats in Congress that Israel's heading in the right direction," he added.
Compromise with Palestinians is unlikely to happen under the current Israeli government, the most right-wing in the country’s history. But Washington could nudge Israel toward a more centrist coalition.
"What he [Biden] could do, for example, is simply say that every dollar Israel spends in the settlements, they’ll get one dollar less of American aid," Rynhold said. "That is something that would make the Israeli public recognize the costs of having a right-wing government."
Such a move carries considerable political risk for Biden ahead of the 2024 presidential campaign. Republicans would be eager to paint him as weak on supporting Israel, contrasting his approach to Trump’s policy of maximum pressure and isolation of the Palestinians that accompanied the Abraham Accords.
Meanwhile, Palestinian voices are skeptical.
Far from resolving conflicts, Saudi-Israel normalization will serve as a pillar of a repressive architecture that brings no justice for Palestinians, said Dana El Kurd of Al Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network.
"Half-baked ideas about a final Palestinian-Israeli agreement," El Kurd said, in reality do not resolve underlying causes of conflict but "cement an increasingly violent status quo."