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Gallant, defense brass met to examine consequences of Saudi normalization – report

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant convened defense officials last month to discuss the security consequences of a potential normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, according to a report Monday.

National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, Mossad spy agency director David Barnea and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi attended the meeting, which focused on security questions relating to Riyadh’s demand for a US-backed civilian nuclear program on Saudi soil, the Kan public broadcaster reported, citing unnamed officials with knowledge of the talks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held similar deliberations, the report added.

Critics of such demand have said that a civilian nuclear program on Saudi Arabia’s soil could be recast for military purposes and spark a regional arms race, jeopardizing Israel’s security.

“Netanyahu has a duty to Israel’s security and security will not be sacrificed here,” a senior official told Kan.

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With regards to possible concessions to the Palestinians as part of a potential deal, the source vowed “we will not do anything that harms the interests of Israel.”

“We’ll know how to solve the Palestinian issue. Saudi Arabia is an important Arab country with very important infrastructure for the State of Israel,” the source said.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency (SPA) via AP/File)

Saudi Arabia “is connected to the entire region, which has significant consequences, particularly for security,” the official added.

In the wake of a push by the Biden administration to forge ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh, a delegation of top American officials is slated to travel to Riyadh this week to meet with Saudi counterparts in order to discuss a potential agreement, a US official and a Palestinian official told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

The visit by White House Middle East czar Brett McGurk and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf will overlap with that of a Palestinian delegation led by Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee secretary-general Hussein al-Sheikh, who will be in Riyadh to discuss what Ramallah is hoping to obtain from a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, the two officials said.

Gallant reportedly asked for clarification regarding a possible Saudi nuclear program during his meeting with McGurk in New York in August.

Saudi Arabia is prepared to forgo its long-maintained public stance against normalizing with Israel, in the absence of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That said, Riyadh is still not expected to agree to a deal with Jerusalem that does not include a significant advancement toward Palestinian sovereignty, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Last week, three officials told The Times of Israel that the Palestinian Authority is seeking “irreversible” steps that will advance its bid for statehood in the context of negotiations for a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, April 19, 2023. (Wafa/File)

The proposed steps have included US backing for recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, the US reopening its consulate in Jerusalem that historically served Palestinians, the scrapping of congressional legislation characterizing the PA as a terror organization, the transfer of West Bank territory from Israeli to Palestinian control, and the razing of illegal outposts in the West Bank.

Sheikh discussed the measures with Leaf, during a meeting last week and received a largely chilly response, according to a Palestinian official.

Biden administration officials have pushed back on the Palestinian proposals relating to the US, encouraging the PA to moderate its requests and aim them at Israel instead.

But major gestures to the Palestinians are almost certain to be opposed by some in Netanyahu’s hardline government. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said last month that the idea that Israel will make concessions to the Palestinians as part of a normalization deal is a “fiction.”

While a deal is expected to include a Palestinian component, the bulk of Saudi demands are directed at the US, and those have been the focus of the negotiations thus far between the Biden administration and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In addition to a nuclear program, Riyadh has been seeking a NATO-like mutual security treaty that would obligate the US to come to Saudi Arabia’s defense if the latter is attacked, and the ability to purchase more advanced weaponry from Washington.

In exchange, the US is looking for Riyadh to significantly roll back its economic and military ties with China and Russia, and bolster the truce that ended the civil war in Yemen.

Any new US treaty with Saudi Arabia would require the support of two-thirds of the Senate — a tall task given Republican reluctance to give Biden a foreign policy victory and major Democratic concern over Riyadh’s human rights record.