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Israel 'in a fog' over talks between US and Saudi Arabia on normalisation

Israeli national security advisor sends signals on Saudi-Israel normalisation talks ahead of visit to Washington
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on 29 December 2019 (AFP)

The US is keeping Israel "in a fog" about its efforts to broker a normalisation agreement with its ally and Saudi Arabia, a senior Israeli official said on Tuesday, expressing scepticism about a breakthrough.

"We are not really aware, right now, of what is happening in the Saudi-American corridors,” Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s national security advisor, said on Tuesday.

Hanegbi said the Saudis are pursuing "triangular" diplomacy by placing demands on both Washington and Israel in exchange for a normalisation of ties. 

The Wall Street Journal reported in March that Riyadh asked the Biden administration for stronger security commitments, expedited arms sales, and help with its civilian nuclear programme in exchange for normalising ties with Israel.

Those issues have all been outstanding between the Saudis and Washington for years, but the disclosure offered clarity on Riyadh’s wish list.

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Hanegbi called this "an American dilemma”, skirting how Israel might respond. Israel has no official veto on US arms sales or nuclear issues, but Washington has long consulted its closest ally to ensure it maintains a “qualitative military edge” against Arab states.

Even after normalising ties with the UAE in 2020 as part of the US-brokered Abraham Accords, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he opposed the sale of F-35s to the country, citing the military balance of power in the region.

Hanegbi said Israel would ensure any deal with Saudi Arabia sticks to that precedent. He also said Riyadh's efforts to gain American help with its civilian nuclear programme would have to clear US counter-proliferation regulations first, but added that any Saudi-US deal would not make progress without consulting Israel. 

'Close contact' 

The Saudis have also asked for Israeli concessions. In January, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said the kingdom would not normalise relations with Israel until Palestinians are granted statehood.

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Israel’s efforts to deepen and extend the Abraham Accords have faced challenges amid rising tensions in the occupied West Bank and particularly around Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

Middle East Eye reported in November how the far-right makeup of Netanyahu’s government complicated his pledge to improve ties with Arab states.

Hanegbi made the comments ahead of an expected trip to the US later this week, along with Ron Dermer, the Israeli minister for strategic affairs.

According to a report by Axios, the two will meet with White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and other senior officials to discuss cooperation on the Iranian nuclear file and normalisation with Saudi Arabia.

Hanegbi also downplayed expectations of a deal with Riyadh to allow direct commercial flights for Muslims from Israel making the Hajj pilgrimage next month.

"We would like for it to happen (but) it is not clear whether, under this schedule, it can happen," he said.

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