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Inside the effort to create a far-reaching U.S.-Saudi-Israeli pact to end the war

Eleven days ago, Sen. Lindsay Graham arrived for a private meeting in a lavish tent with ruby red rugs and low burgundy cushions in the western Saudi Arabian oasis town of Al Ula, home to ancient Nabatean ruins. The tent is guarded by layers of Saudi security that protect the nearby winter camp of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

Graham, a South Carolina Republican, was a participant in a series of high-stakes meetings with the crown prince in recent weeks involving American lawmakers and diplomats hoping to rekindle a potential treaty between Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States. Their ambitious goal is to hammer out a framework for concluding the Israel-Hamas war, stabilizing the Middle East and paving the way for some form of Palestinian self-governance in the Gaza Strip.

The big question is: Will the Israeli government — and the Israeli public — accept a path to Palestinian state in exchange for an American-backed peace treaty with Saudi Arabia?

Despite months of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and hard-line members of his right-wing coalition publicly dismissing the idea of a Palestinian state after the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack, a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia that ends the Israel-Hamas war is seen as a potential political win for Netanyahu, according to six people familiar with the talks.  

“Any deal for normalization with Saudi Arabia right now would be a major win politically speaking for Netanyahu and an exit strategy,” said Nadav Eyal, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Yediyot Ahronot. 

The plans being discussed by Saudi, U.S. and Israeli officials provide a framework for rebuilding Gaza with significant support from neighboring Arab countries; establishing moderate Palestinian leadership for Gaza; as well as ratifying a defense treaty between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that will provide an alliance against their mutual foe Iran, according to people familiar with the talks. Saudi Arabia has insisted that any plan include a realistic pathway to a Palestinian state.

An adviser for a member of Israel’s war Cabinet who asked not to be named said that “if the Saudis come with a deal that is good for Israel, of course we will vote for it.” The adviser, and other Israeli officials, cautioned that the American push is premature because the Israeli public is not ready to discuss Palestinian state in the wake of the worst terrorist attack in Israeli history. 

“The subject of a Palestinian state is too hot to touch in Israel right now,” said a second senior Israeli government official. “People are talking about the war and the hostages, not rewarding the Palestinians. It’s also unclear when and how the war will even end.”

The political obstacles in all three countries are significant. While Saudi Arabia is seen as a potential leader in the effort to create stability in Gaza, the Gulf state is reportedly hoping to secure civilian nuclear technology agreements that would need the approval of the U.S. Congress, according to a former U.S. national security official. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s insistence that any deal bring with it a realistic pathway to a Palestinian state, echoed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, would be contentious in Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition.

Saudi officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Despite the significant challenges that could derail the deal, if talks move forward, there will likely be more meetings in the crown prince’s tent in the coming months.

American visitors

The American push for the deal with Saudi Arabia and Israel aims to build on the Abraham Accords, which established relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan in 2020.

“The Abraham Accords were a great first step, but Saudi-Israel normalization is really the brass ring,” said Michael Singh, managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council. “Saudi Arabia is the most influential nation in the Muslim world, and it’s an incredibly important state in the Middle East because of its size and its wealth.”

Central to this push has been Graham, who has visited Saudi Arabia three times in the last 12 months. Israeli and American officials familiar with the deal said there is a push to get it done while President Joe Biden is in office to secure Democratic votes for a U.S.-Saudi security treaty, while Graham can deliver the Republican votes to reach the 67 needed for ratification in the Senate.

Graham first traveled to Israel to discuss the deal with Israeli leaders, and held a closed-door meeting with Netanyahu on Jan. 4.

“I’m more dedicated now to bringing stability to your country and this region, because I think Iran’s goal is to destroy your efforts to reconcile with the Arab world,” Graham said to reporters in Israel following the meeting. “It’s an absolutely essential ingredient to a better, more stable Middle East and a safe and secure Israel and a prosperous Palestinian people.” 

Lindsey Graham with Benjamin Netenyahu in Jerusalem
Sen. Lindsey Graham with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem on April 17, 2023.GPO / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file

From Israel, Graham made his way to the tent in Al Ula to meet with Prince Mohammed. After their discussion, Graham tweeted that “the Saudi Crown Prince, under the right circumstances, is still interested in normalizing relations with Israel.”

After the meeting with Graham, the Saudi Foreign Ministry, in a Jan. 7 post on X, said that the crown prince and the senator had discussed “regional and international developments, and issues of shared interest.” 

The post included a photo of the crown prince hosting Graham; U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Michael Ratney; Jeffrey Talpins, CEO of the hedge fund Element Capital; and Oren Eisner, president of Talpins’ foundation. Talpins and Eisner are the founders of the N7 Initiative, an organization that convened the first multilateral government meetings of U.S., Israeli and Arab senior government officials following the signing of the Abraham Accords.

Several days after Graham’s visit, Blinken traveled to Al Ula to meet with Prince Mohammed as part of his regional trip that included meetings with Netanyahu and the leaders of other Arab nations.

A bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee delegation led by Committee Chair Mark Warner, D-Va. that included six senators also visited the crown prince’s tent in January. They also met with senior security officials in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, according to a person familiar with the delegation’s trip.

In the wake of the meetings with the Americans, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Prince Khalid bin Bandar, said publicly that the possibility of Saudi normalization with Israel remains alive if the conclusion of the Israel-Hamas war brings with it a realistic path to the creation of a Palestinian state.

“We were close to normalization, therefore close to a Palestinian state,” Bandar told the BBC, referring to the momentum that was building toward normalization of Saudi-Israel relations before the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack. “One doesn’t come without the other. The sequencing, how it is managed, that is what was being discussed.”

The normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel has been years in the making.

“I was in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office four years ago  and there was a note from the King of Saudi Arabia,” recounted Israeli broadcast journalist Amit Segal in Jerusalem. “When he made the speech to U.S. Congress about the dangers of Iranian nuclear proliferation, the Saudis saw it and said, ‘I think we can be partners.’”

Antony Blinken and Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Saudi Arabia on Jan. 8.Evelyn Hockstein / POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Israel’s vision for ‘the day after’

Israeli prime minister Netanyahu has so far taken a hard line publicly regarding the war. After his meeting with Graham, he repeated Israel’s war aims of destroying Hamas, freeing the hostages and ensuring that “Gaza does not become a threat again.” Netanyahu did not mention what post-war Gaza’s political status might be.

But the tone adopted by Israel’s war Cabinet officials about “the day after” the war has become more nuanced since mid-December, particularly in the Arabic and English language press. Israeli’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, in an op-ed published on Dec. 20 in the Saudi-owned Arabic language newspaper Elaph, wrote about partnering with moderate Palestinians and said Israel has no interest in controlling the civil affairs of the Gaza Strip. 

“This will require a moderate Palestinian governing body that enjoys broad popular support and legitimacy,” Hanegbi wrote. “It is not for us to determine who this body will be.” Hanegbi and other Israeli officials have not been clear about what role, if any, the Palestinian Authority, which governs the occupied West Bank, can play in governing Gaza.

Five days later, on Christmas Day, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Netanyahu introducing the idea that once Palestinian society begins a “deradicalization process,” Gaza can be rebuilt.

“Since the 9/11 attacks, visionary Arab leaders in the Gulf have led efforts to deradicalize their societies and transform their countries,” he wrote. “Israel has since forged the historic Abraham Accords and today enjoys peace agreements with six Arab states. Such a cultural transformation will be possible in Gaza only among Palestinians who don’t seek the destruction of Israel.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who reportedly has an increasingly strained relationship with Netanyahu, has also discussed a plan for post-war Gaza. On Monday, he told reporters: “The future government in Gaza must grow from the Gaza Strip, Gaza will be ruled by Palestinians. The end of the military campaign must be anchored in policy.”

“I will not allow Israel to repeat the mistakes of Oslo”

Despite his comments in the English language press, Netanyahu has not shied away from hard-line statements in Israel to reassure his political base. In a closed meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in early December, he said that “the mother of all sins was Oslo — not the deal itself, but the fact that they took the most anti-Zionist element and brought it here,” according to Israeli press reports of the meeting. 

Netanyahu doubled down two days later, saying that he had “disagreement” with the Biden administration about “the day after Hamas.”

“I wanted to clarify my position,” he said. “I will not allow Israel to repeat the mistake of Oslo.”

A woman sits amongst damaged homes caused by Israeli air strikes in Rafah, Gaza
A woman sits Thursday among damaged homes caused by Israeli airstrikes in Rafah, Gaza.Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images

Daniel Silverberg, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who served as national security adviser to then-House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., expressed frustration with Netanyahu. “From an American perspective Bibi’s posture is really frustrating,” he said. “Bibi publicly, and I think privately, keeps saying ‘my hands are tied and my coalition would implode if I do anything that’s pro Palestinian Authority or tightens the reins on settlers.’”

The right-wing faction of Netanyahu’s coalition government remains steadfastly opposed to any discussion of a Palestinian state. Numerous Likud members have gone further than Netanyahu’s rhetoric against Oslo, directly rejecting the possibility of a two-state solution.

Silverberg also questioned how realistic it is to expect Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to participate in the rebuilding of Gaza. 

“This is where there’s likely a gulf between what’s being talked about in Israel and how the U.S. sees it,” he said. “When I was in Israel I was having conversations with people saying, ‘We can get the Saudis and other Gulf countries to provide boots on the ground for security and invest in Gaza.’ That sounds crazy to me.”

Despite all of the challenges, a U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal could be part of an exit strategy from the war and a win for a politically beleaguered Netanyahu.

“It’s the only exit strategy with political appeal for Bibi,” said a former Israeli security official. “It’s just not clear if it’s possible.”

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