Netanyahu raises breakthrough with Saudi Arabia in meeting with US officials

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday said he discussed steps on achieving a breakthrough in relations with Saudi Arabia as part of wide-ranging discussions with US national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu said diplomatic relations with Riyadh were discussed as part of the next steps to deepen the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements brokered during the former Trump administration that established ties between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

National security spokesperson Adrienne Watson did not include a reference to the Abraham Accords or Saudi Arabia in a readout of Sullivan’s meeting with Netanyahu, but said that Sullivan underscored President Biden’s commitment to working together with Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain and “promoting a more integrated , prosperous, and secure Middle East region with benefits for all of its people”

US, Emirati, Bahraini and Israeli officials convened in Abu Dhabi earlier in January, the second meeting of the Negev Forum Working Group, established by the Biden administration but an outgrowth of the Abraham Accords.

The Trump administration announced the Abraham Accords in August 2020 in a decision with Emirati officials and Netanyahu’s government that halted plans by Israel to annex territory in the West Bank, with critics saying such a move would kill an opportunity to achieve a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.

Riyadh held off on joining the Abraham Accords along with the UAE and Bahrain over reported concerns by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman that not enough progress had been made on Palestinian statehood.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan echoed this view on Thursday, telling Bloomberg TV in an interview in Davos, Switzerland, that normalization with Israel “and true stability will only come through giving the Palestinians hope, through giving the Palestinians dignity. That requires giving the Palestinians a state, and that’s the priority.”

The Israelis and the Saudis have held quiet security ties for years, largely to combat Iran, and Riyadh has taken small steps to bring those ties into public view.

The Saudis allowed President Biden to fly from Tel Aviv, Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, during a visit in July. The Saudis have also agreed to allow Israeli commercial flights to travel through its airspace.

While the Biden administration has not launched an effort to establish peace between Israelis and Palestinians, it has put its support behind a two-state solution to the conflict and reengaged with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah after the Palestinians severed relations with the US in response by moves by the former Trump administration.

Sullivan, who was in the region for three days, also met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah “to reaffirm the US administration’s interest in strengthening engagement with the Palestinian Authority and deepening ties with the Palestinian people.”

“They discussed US support for peace, preserving the path towards negotiations for two states, and advancing equal measures of security, prosperity, and freedom for Israelis and Palestinians,” the White House said in its statement.

“He also discussed the need for Palestinian leaders to help de-escalate tensions in the West Bank and to strengthen Palestinian institutions.”

Sullivan, in his meeting with Netanyahu, reiterated support for the two-state solution and discouraged policies that endanger its viability, according to the readout provided by the White House.

“Mr. Sullivan underscored the urgency of avoiding unilateral steps by any party that could inflame tensions on the ground, with special attention to maintaining the historic status quo with respect to the holy places in Jerusalem.”

The remarks likely referred to a visit by member of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, in early January to what Jews refer to as the Temple Mount and Muslims refer to as Haram Al Sharif.

Security of the Holy Site is managed by the Jordanians in a delicate status quo that largely prohibits Jewish visitation and prayer on the site. Ben-Gvir’s visit was slammed as a provocation by Israel’s political opposition, the Palestinian Authority and others.

Biden administration officials expressed deep concern at the time that Ben-Gvir’s visit, with State Department spokesperson Ned Price saying the visit had “the potential to exacerbate tensions and to provoke violence.”

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