Saudi Arabia 'willing to snub Palestinians' for US defence deal

Saudi Arabia 'willing to snub Palestinians' for US defence deal
Palestinians could get some Israeli restrictions eased as part of a normalisation deal with Saudi Arabia but such moves would fall short of their aspirations for an independent state.
4 min read
29 September, 2023
Saudi Arabia is determined to secure a military pact requiring the United States to defend the kingdom in return for normalising ties with Israel [ROYAL COURT OF SAUDI ARABIA / HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency/Getty-archive]

Saudi Arabia is determined to reach a military deal with the United States requiring Washington to defend the kingdom in return for normalising ties with Israel, three sources familiar with the talks have said.

Riyadh will not hold up a deal even if Israel does not offer major concessions to the Palestinians in their bid for statehood, the sources said.

A pact might fall short of the cast-iron, NATO-style defence guarantees the kingdom initially sought when the issue was first discussed between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and Joe Biden during the US president's visit to Saudi Arabia in July 2022.

Instead, a US source said it could look like treaties Washington has with Asian states or, if that would not win US Congress approval, it could be similar to a US agreement with Bahrain, where the US Navy Fifth Fleet is based. Such an agreement would not need congressional backing.

Washington could also sweeten any deal by designating Saudi Arabia a Major Non-NATO Ally, a status already given to Israel, the US source said.

But all the sources said Saudi Arabia would not settle for less than binding assurances of US protection if it faced an attack, such as the 14 September 2019 missile strikes on its oil sites that rattled world markets.

Riyadh and Washington blamed Iran, the kingdom's regional rival, although Tehran denied having a role.

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A US official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the parameters of a defence pact were still being worked out, adding that what was being discussed "would not be a treaty alliance or anything like that… It would be a mutual defence understanding, less than a full treaty".

The official said it would be more like the US relationship with Israel, which receives the most advanced US weapons and holds joint air force and missile defence drills.

One of the regional sources said Riyadh was compromising in some demands to help secure a deal, including over its plans for civilian nuclear technology.

The source said Saudi Arabia was ready to sign Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act, establishing a framework for US peaceful nuclear cooperation, a move the kingdom previously refused to take.

Agreements giving the world's biggest oil exporter US protection in return for normalisation with Israel would be a diplomatic victory for Biden ahead of the 2024 election.

Palestinians could get some Israeli restrictions eased but such moves would fall short of their aspirations for an independent state.

As with other deals between Arab countries and Israel forged over the decades, the Palestinian core demand for statehood would take a back seat, the three regional sources familiar with the talks said.

"The normalisation will be between Israel and Saudi Arabia. If the Palestinians oppose it the kingdom will continue in its path," the second of the regional sources said.

"Saudi Arabia supports a peace plan for the Palestinians, but this time it wanted something for Saudi Arabia, not just for the Palestinians."

But diplomats and regional sources said MBS was insisting on some commitments from Israel to show he was not abandoning the Palestinians and that he was seeking to keep the door open to a two-state solution.

Those would include demanding Israel transfer some Israeli-controlled territory in the occupied West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, limit Jewish settlement activity and halt any steps to annex parts of the West Bank. Riyadh has also promised financial aid to the PA, the diplomats and sources said.

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said any bargain must recognise the Palestinian right to a state within the 1967 borders, including occupied East Jerusalem, and must stop Israeli settlement building. However, all the sources said a Saudi-Israeli deal was unlikely to address those flashpoint issues.

Previous normalisation deals between Israel and other Arab countries such as the UAE have been highly controversial.

Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, have agreed the multi-issue agreement with Riyadh should leave the possibility for an accord on resolving the conflict with the Palestinians intact, news website Axios cited an Israeli official and an informed source as saying.

The US president conveyed to Netanyahu his desire for Israel to take actions that would maintain the viability of the two-state solution, the sources said.

They said Netanyahu agreed with the idea, though according to the Israeli official, dialogue on the Palestinian element of the agreement was in its early stages.

It will centre on turning the overall idea the US and Israeli leaders talked about – a principle that could be understood in diverging ways – into concrete actions.

(Reuters, The New Arab)