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Tom Friedman to Biden: Don’t be Netanyahu’s ‘useful idiot’ with Saudi normalization

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman implored US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday not to allow themselves to become Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “useful idiots” by agreeing to an Israel-Saudi normalization agreement that does not concretely advance a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In his latest op-ed, he argued that any deal advancing that goal of two states would all but ensure the collapse of Netanyahu’s hardline government, which overwhelmingly — if not exclusively — consists of opponents to Palestinian statehood.

Seemingly suggesting that any deal that doesn’t collapse the Israeli government is one that doesn’t go far enough on the Palestinian issue, Friedman writes, “You cannot have normalization with an Israeli government that is not normal. It will never be a stable US ally or Saudi partner. And right now, Israel’s government is not normal.”

The NYT columnist is understood to be closely read by Biden and the US president has, on several occasions, used Friedman to convey messages regarding US-Israel relations.

Over the past several months, the Biden administration has intensified its effort to broker a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, viewing the alliance as one that would advance its interests in the region.

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To secure the deal, it is weighing Saudi demands for a major defense pact with the US in addition to Washington’s support for a civilian nuclear program. In exchange, it is asking Riyadh to distance itself from Russia and China both economically and militarily.

Tom Friedman leaves a session at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 12, 2023 in Sun Valley, Idaho. (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images via AFP)

As part of the agreement, it is also looking for Saudi Arabia to normalize ties with Israel, while expecting that the latter make concessions to the Palestinians that will minimize pushback from the broader Palestinian-sympathetic Muslim world as well as from progressives in Congress who have long objected to Riyadh’s human rights record.

Netanyahu has argued that the Palestinian component of the deal will be largely cosmetic, since the leadership in Riyadh is not as bothered by the issue as some might think.

“So, I want to appeal directly to President Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS): Do not let Netanyahu make you his useful idiots,” Friedman wrote.

He specifically warned Biden not to allow Netanyahu to “sweet talk” the US into accepting a scenario in which Netanyahu continues to advance his overhaul of the judiciary “without having to give the Palestinians anything of significance, thereby advancing his coalition’s dream of annexing the West Bank.”

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jeddah on June 7, 2023. (Amer Hilabi/Pool Photo via AP)

Instead, Friedman said Biden and MBS should only accept a normalization deal that would see Israel freeze all settlement building in West Bank areas earmarked for a future Palestinian state (though he didn’t specify the scope of that territory); halt all legalization of wildcat outposts; transfer Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank to the Palestinians; and “declare that the goal of the diplomatic process will be a two-state solution in the West Bank.”

“Thus, it would force Bibi’s government and the Israeli people to choose: Do you want annexation, or do you want normalization with the most important Muslim country,” Friedman wrote.

He admits to not knowing what would unfold in Israel if a potential deal would collapse the current coalition. Opposition leaders have vowed not to join Netanyahu in such a scenario.

Accordingly, Friedman wrote that if the parties manage to “pull it off [a normalization deal], they’ll win both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize in Physics.”