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American defense pact at forefront of Saudi talks, says senior Israeli official

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Any progress on normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia currently hinges on defense guarantees, which the latter is seeking from the United States, said a senior Israeli official.

The senior official, deeply involved in the diplomatic process, estimated there are another “four to five” non-resolved issues upon which the negotiations turn, but they are “not as complicated.”

American and Palestinian delegations are traveling to the Gulf state this week to continue talks that would include a US-brokered normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a prospect deeply desired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The official assessed that Israeli concessions to the Palestinians were not the chief Saudi focus, with the Saudi-US defense pact the kingdom’s main concern.

While declining to elaborate on potential concessions, the senior official added that Netanyahu, who spent the past two days in Cyprus for trilateral talks with his Cypriot and Greek counterparts, felt confidant he would be able to rally his hardline coalition behind him. The coalition, including Netanyahu’s far-right partners and lawmakers in his Likud party, overwhelmingly oppose a Palestinian state and are committed to extending Jewish sovereignty over the West Bank.

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The senior official vowed Netanyahu would not “take steps with the Palestinians” that would not “sit well” with him, asserting that if the premier is comfortable with a concession, then his coalition partners should “be okay” as well.

Sara Netanyahu and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak to the press from the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport on September 3, 2023 ahead of their state visit to Cyprus. (Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO)

Since returning to the helm in December, Netanyahu has yet to visit Washington, and is seeking a White House meeting with US President Joe Biden. The two are expected to meet when Netanyahu visits New York later this month for the UN General Assembly, but it remains unclear where the talks will be held.

Netanyahu’s political rival, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, is headed to Washington this week for high-level meetings with White House and State Department officials.

The senior official “estimates that there will be a meeting with Biden,” but said it was not clear when.

Biden has weighed in several times on the judicial overhaul tensions roiling Israel, publicly calling on Netanyahu to slow the pace of the government’s contentious legislative changes to allow for broad consensus.

The senior official, knowledgeable about the issue, declined to answer questions about the government’s latest approach for enacting changes to the judiciary, implying a statement may be coming “soon,” albeit in an indeterminate timeframe.

Netanyahu’s justice minister, Yariv Levin, has been engaged in a public spat with Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, which reached a fever pitch in recent days.

Levin on Sunday said that he had no working relationship with Baharav-Miara and that working with her was “almost impossible.” Baharav-Miara said that her office, which is responsible for representing the government, supports invalidating two of the coalition’s judicial shakeup laws currently being evaluated by the High Court of Justice.

The justice minister said on Sunday that firing the attorney general would be “very problematic” and it was not currently on the government’s agenda. The senior government official supported this statement, saying, “no,” Netanyahu does not plan to fire Baharav-Miara.

On Monday evening, President Isaac Herzog’s office announced movement towards reaching agreements on a consensus reform through indirect talks, although no agreement is yet to be obtained. A source from the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that no agreements have been reached.

While not directly linked to the judicial overhaul, academics and journalists have also cast a wary eye at Communication Minister Shlomo Karhi’s proposed media shakeup, which would scuttle the current regulatory regime in favor of one that gives more control and discretion to the government.

The prime minister has “not had time to look it at fully. It has good things and some unclear things,” the senior official said.