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Israel's security brass advocates Saudi deal as way to calm tensions with Palestinians

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears trapped between security establishment advice to proceed with a Saudi deal plus concessions to the Palestinians and allied hardliners' rejection of any compromise with Ramallah.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on April 19, 2023. SPA

TEL AVIV — While a path of escalating Palestinian attacks and tensions threatens to deteriorate into further violence with Israel, a path of Saudi-Israeli rapprochement appears to be emerging that could herald a historic Middle Eastern peace. 

The major issues are whether the promise of the Saudi track can be leveraged to benefit the Palestinians and Israelis and whether either option is feasible given the political chokehold curbing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s freedom to act.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Thursday that a “broad understanding of many of the key elements" had been reached in negotiations with Saudi Arabia on a normalization deal with Israel, but he cautioned, “We don't have the terms ready to be signed. There is still work to do."

Netanyahu on side of security establishment

The top echelons of the Israeli military and other defense agencies believe that Israel should try to harness any agreement with Saudi Arabia to calm tensions on the West Bank. 

“This kind of agreement is a historical lever,” a former senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “When the Saudis enter the Abraham Accords, it's a drama that can change reality, it creates economic and financial levers, political opportunities and maybe a different atmosphere that will help lower the flames.”

The BBC reported on Friday that Palestinian officials held talks in Riyadh with their Saudi counterparts this week. Among their demands are a cash boost for the Palestinian Authority (PA) of hundreds of millions of dollars and more control over land in the West Bank, according to the report.

Unlike the security agencies, Netanyahu's hardline coalition is strongly averse to the idea of a Saudi-Israeli-Palestinian deal. The two extreme right-wing parties in the coalition — Religious Zionism, led by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is also tasked with advancing Jewish settlement of the West Bank, and Jewish Power, led by National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir — see the PA as a bitter enemy that must be vanquished. They have no intention of going along with any concessions to the Palestinians, which the Saudis have set as a key condition for normalization with Israel. On the contrary.

According to some of Netanyahu's associates, he is on the side of the security establishment. Still, he cannot say so out loud. His trial on charges of corruption resumed this week after a summer recess, and to survive he needs his extremist political allies to push through deeply controversial legislation weakening the country’s judiciary.

Meanwhile, tensions in the past few months once again escalated in the Palestinian territories. Intelligence assessments had until recently downplayed the prospect of a mass Palestinian uprising despite a wave of terrorism by individuals influenced by social media incitement. The assessments shifted, however, with the formation of Israel’s ultra right-wing government, the increasing friction between extremist settlers and Palestinians, and the worsening economic situation of the Palestinians on the West Bank. 

“The number of warnings of terrorist attacks has been rising tremendously recently,” a senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity. “It is not close to what happened here during the second intifada [20 years ago], nor is there a deep terror infrastructure that can take us back to those days, but it is also a far cry from the situation we had become accustomed to in recent years. The restraining factors are weakening, while the accelerating and flammable factors are multiplying. It's dangerous.”

Netanyahu hears these warnings, but he cannot risk angering his far-right partners or playing chicken with a thug like Ben-Gvir despite Jewish Power’s declining popularity. A Maariv newspaper poll published on Friday gave Ben-Gvir’s radical party four seats in the 120-seat legislature, putting it on the verge of a Knesset ouster. Netanyahu fears, however, that the negotiations with Saudi Arabia and proposed concessions to the Palestinians might give Ben-Gvir a badly needed boost and reverse his decline.

Meanwhile, negotiations reported earlier this week on a compromise between Netanyahu and the centrist opposition on the issue of the judicial overhaul being pushed by his government have not taken off. When Netanyahu called on former defense minister Benny Gantz last Tuesday to “come talk,” he was actually addressing US President Joe Biden. Netanyahu knows that Gantz will not make the same mistake twice and agree to ally with Netanyahu, as he did in 2020, and will not enter into futile negotiations. 

“If Netanyahu wants to sign the outline that he himself brought to the president, he is welcome to do it. We will support him from the outside,” a senior source in Gantz’s National Unity told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “However, that's not what he wants. All he wants is to display pragmatism and signal to Washington that he does not intend to continue the regime coup in order to get a meeting at the White House. Well, with all due respect, we are not in charge of Netanyahu's meetings with Biden.”

Netanyahu is considering a speech to accurately define, for a change, what his legislative plans actually are and in a way that will convince the public that the principles of the judicial revolution are dead in the water. A senior Likud political source told Al-Monitor, however, that Netanyahu doesn't really want to convince the public, just the Americans. 

White House prioritizing Saudi deal

Are the Americans convinced? Seemingly, yes, judging by the determination with which the administration continues to advance the deal with Saudi Arabia and the perceived foreign policy boon for Biden ahead of next year’s elections. 

“The White House wants this very much,” a senior Israeli political source told Al-Monitor, on the condition of anonymity. “They are working on it with all their might, they are very close to agreeing with Saudi Arabia on the formula regarding uranium enrichment, which will be carried out on the kingdom's soil but under American supervision.” 

Netanyahu, according to this source, will go along with this arrangement to acquire this jewel in the crown of his legacy. “They know that Netanyahu will agree to anything in order to get the Saudi candy,” noted the political source. “Given his condition, it's not candy — it's an oxygen balloon.”

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