Foreign minister says Israel ‘very optimistic’ on normalization deal with Saudis

Eli Cohen notes ‘window of opportunity’ for deal before March 2024, after which US likely to focus more on presidential election cycle

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen attends an event at the Foreign Ministry  in Jerusalem, May 17, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen attends an event at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 17, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said Sunday there was a relatively short “window of opportunity” for a coveted, US-brokered normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia in the coming months, and that Jerusalem was optimistic about a potential deal that would be separate from the 2020 Abraham Accords.

In a briefing with diplomatic reporters, Cohen said talks on such an agreement were ongoing through various channels, but mainly via Washington.

“We are very optimistic about the possibility of achieving such an agreement. This is an achievable agreement, after which more countries will follow,” said Cohen without specifying. Israel signed normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco in 2020.

The foreign minister said the Saudis “were also interested in such an agreement,” which he said “will not be part” of the Abraham Accords and would include other countries as well.

According to Israeli assessments, he said, “there is a window of opportunity until March 2024” for an agreement with Riyadh, “after which the political system in the US will focus on the presidential elections” later that year.

Talk of a potential Jerusalem-Riyadh deal has swirled over the past few months as the Biden administration has intensified its effort to broker an agreement. In early June, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken nudged the Saudis on diplomatic normalization with Israel on a visit to Jeddah and Riyadh.

Days later, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said that normalizing ties with Israel would bring significant benefits to the region but that those benefits would be limited by the absence of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, right, escorts US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center, as they arrive for a meeting with GCC Ministers at the GCC Secretariat in Riyadh on June 7, 2023. (Ahmed Yosri/Pool/AFP)

Speaking at a press conference alongside Blinken on January 8, the Saudi foreign minister said that “without finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people, without addressing that challenge, any normalization will have limited benefits,” without mentioning Israel by name. He said there should be a “focus on finding a pathway toward a two-state solution, on finding a pathway toward giving the Palestinians dignity and justice.”

The response was largely standard for Saudi officials who have long said publicly that they won’t normalize relations with Israel before the establishment of a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 lines, even though they’ve offered more flexibility behind closed doors.

Saudi Arabia has been willing to entertain the idea of normalizing ties with Israel but is seeking several large concessions from the US.

At the press event, bin Farhan was asked about one widely reported condition the kingdom has for moving forward on the Israel front: US support for the civilian nuclear program that it’s working to build.

“It’s no secret that we are developing our domestic civilian nuclear program, and we would very much prefer to be able to have the US as one of the bidders,” bin Farhan said at the time.

In addition to cooperation on the civilian nuclear program, which would likely be a cause of apprehension for both the US and Israel, Riyadh also expects security and economic guarantees from the Biden administration, a senior US official and a senior Middle East diplomat told The Times of Israel earlier this month.

Saudi Arabia will also expect a significant concession to the Palestinians in order to solidify any normalization deal, the officials said.

Meanwhile, Abraham Accords signatory Morocco recently canceled an upcoming meeting between the foreign ministers of Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt and the US over Israel’s settlement expansion plans in the West Bank.

The event, a ministerial gathering of the Negev Forum was, originally slated to take place in March but has been delayed several times amid escalating tensions between Israelis and Palestinians as well as discomfort among Arab participants over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hardline government.

In his briefing on Sunday, Cohen said the meeting was “postponed, but not canceled,” and acknowledged that the reason was the “decision to expand construction” in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He expressed confidence that the meeting would take place sometime in the future.

Cohen said the meeting was set to host officials from “two-three countries with which Israel does not yet have diplomatic relations” and that they were likely to attend the future meeting. “This will be part of the steps towards normalization with them,” he said without elaborating.

“The US plays an important role in promoting the forum and the ministerial meeting,” Cohen added.

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