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Israel's Netanyahu willing to pay 'heavy price' for normalization with Saudi Arabia

A day after the visit of Israel's Foreign Ministry Director General Ronen Levy to Washington, Al-Monitor has learned that the Negev Forum is expected to convene in a month, in Morocco, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken participating.
Foreign Ministry Director Ronen Levi at an Iftar diner hosting foreign diplomats, Jerusalem, April 2 2023   Credit: Sivan Shahor/GPO

TEL AVIV — The visit of Israel's Foreign Ministry Director General Ronen Levy in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday and his meetings there with senior American officials do not reflect any change in the position of the White House on avoiding to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a meeting with US President Joe Biden, say Israeli diplomatic sources.

On the other hand, with Netanyahu banning Cabinet ministers from traveling to Washington before he gets an invite, Levy has become an emissary for messages from the prime minister to Biden administration seniors.

A statement issued by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman after her meeting with Levy said that among other things, they spoke about ways to ''advance regional integration through the Negev Forum.'' 

Negev Forum in a month

Al-Monitor learned on Friday from a senior diplomatic source that another meeting of the Negev Forum — originally initiated under then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, hosting counterparts from the United States, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt — is expected to convene again in Morocco, in about a month. The source said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to come to the meeting, and that efforts are underway to add to the meeting countries that are not yet part of the Abraham Accords. 

As a reminder, the Negev Forum was expected to convene last March but got delayed because of regional tensions. After the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, efforts to convene the meeting renewed. Earlier this month, Israel's public broadcaster KAN reported on efforts to get Sudan to participate in the next Negev Forum. Sudan is part of the Abraham Accords, but has not yet finalized its normalization agreement with Israel, and is now embroiled in conflict. 

The situation in Jerusalem is becoming increasingly awkward. The Biden administration is not hiding its clear distaste for the policies of the Israeli leader and his radical nationalist, racist government. More so, because of Netanyahu’s ban, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen has not set foot in the US capital since taking office almost five months ago, and the same goes for Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, to whom the Pentagon and National Security Council have extended invitations to discuss issues of paramount security importance.

As such, the meetings of Levy this week with Sherman, White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk and President Biden's senior adviser on the Middle East Amos Hochstein seem especially important. After his meeting with senior Biden administration officials, Levy also met with a group of Congress members considered friends of Israel.

According to the Foreign Ministry, Levy’s visit was aimed at strengthening and expanding the Abraham Accords between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco and dealing with bilateral US-Israeli issues. Such laconic formulations delivered by government officials are generally considered a smokescreen designed to obscure the real and dramatic goals of diplomatic contacts — in this case, intensified efforts to draw Saudi Arabia into normalizing relations with Israel.

Hajj negotiations with Saudi Arabia

Interestingly, one day only after Levy’s Washington visit, Israel’s Maariv reported that negotiations started a year ago on direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj pilgrimage have advanced considerably. The report said that Riyadh is now inclined to approve the move, which would be open only to Muslims living in Israel who wish to participate in the pilgrimage, allowing them to board planes taking off either from Ben Gurion Airport or from Ramon Airport.

Of course, even if this happens — hajj this year is set for the end of June — it would not mean that normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia is imminent. Still, Israel and the United States have launched a renewed push to include Saudi Arabia in the Abraham Accords, as Al-Monitor reported last week. In fact, some Biden associates believe such a ground-breaking achievement changing the face of the Middle East could benefit the president’s reelection prospects, especially given criticism of his administration for abandoning major US allies in the region since taking office.

Israeli political sources affirm that any concrete decisions on Israel’s part in a trilateral US-Saudi-Israeli deal will only be made by Netanyahu himself, his close associate Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer or national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi. Netanyahu will not allow anyone else to be credited with making historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Nonetheless, Levy has an impressive record that could nudge forward Netanyahu’s burning ambition. Levy devoted much of his career to service in the Shin Bet security agency, where he was widely known by his pseudonym, "Maoz." On loan from the Shin Bet to the National Security Council, he was instrumental in the secret contacts that paved the way for the 2020 Abraham Accords. He is knowledgeable, discreet and well connected in Arab capitals.

Referring to Levy’s Washington meetings, a senior Israeli political source talked to Al-Monitor about Netanyahu's goal in regard to Saudi Arabia. “Netanyahu is willing to pay a heavy price for an agreement with Saudi Arabia. This may include willingness to compromise on the issue of contacts and messengers, because time is pressing and there is a lot of work to be done," the source said.

Axios had reported this week that the White House wants to push for a Saudi-Israeli peace deal in the next six to seven months before the election campaign consumes Biden’s agenda.

A former top Israeli diplomatic source told Al-Monitor that while Israel and the Biden administration see eye to eye on the necessity of pushing for a deal with Saudi Arabia, things are different when it comes to Lebanon. Washington was displeased over the dismissive attitude of Netanyahu and his government toward the historic October 2022 Israel-Lebanon gas agreement, which Hochstein was instrumental in achieving. Netanyahu had accused then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid of bargaining away Israel’s “sovereign territory,” in what Haaretz newspaper considered a classic case of sour grapes over the fact that it was achieved by the previous government after Netanyahu’s own efforts on the matter faltered for years.

Apart from the Abraham Accords and perhaps the Lebanon deal, Levy is also believed to have discussed with the Americans Israel’s desire to develop the Negev Forum.

"One thing is certain," a senior Israeli diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "The director general of the Foreign Ministry did not discuss a possible visit by Netanyahu to Washington, and his boss — Foreign Minister Eli Cohen — knows that he will not see Washington before Netanyahu, just as he will not see the Emirates before Netanyahu does. That's the prime minister's approach, at least for now."

With such an elephant in the room, no wonder that Levy’s Washington work visit attracted much media attention. This attention testifies more than anything to the depth of the crisis in relations Washington and Jerusalem prompted by the deeply controversial judicial overhaul the Netanyahu government has pushed.

"The Americans are waiting for quite a few answers from Israel on quite a few strategic issues," a senior European diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "They still don't know what price Netanyahu is willing to pay for an agreement with Saudi Arabia. Is he willing for the United States to upgrade the weapons systems supplied to Saudi Arabia to the level of those that Israel is sold? Will Israel oppose the supply of civilian nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia? Is Netanyahu capable of significant outreach to the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority in order to make it easier for Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman to risk open agreement with Israel?"

These answers, or at least some of them, will only be delivered by Netanyahu or his top aides, such as Dermer, Hanegbi or even the esteemed Israeli Ambassador Michael Herzog. Netanyahu would, of course, prefer to give the answers himself, but as of now he will clearly have to compromise.

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