Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it is “likely” Israel will reach a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia, in what would mark a seismic foreign policy shift for both countries as they edge closer to reaching a deal mediated by the US.
But he refused repeatedly to say what kind of concessions he would offer Palestinians in order to get the deal across the line.
It would “change the Middle East forever,” he said – bringing down “walls of enmity” and creating “a corridor of energy pipelines, rail lines, fiber optic cables, between Asia through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates.”
The White House has been in talks with Riyadh for several months over the purported agreement to normalize relations between the two countries. Saudi Arabia, like many Arab states, does not currently recognize Israel; such a deal would have potential to enhance Israel’s acceptance in the Muslim world, particularly considering Saudi Arabia’s role as the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites.
In 2002, Saudi Arabia proposed an “Arab Peace initiative” which offered Israel security and “normal relations” with 57 Arab and Muslim countries in exchange for its withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territories and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. But Israel rejected the initiative at the time.
This week, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that a normalization pact with Israel would be “the biggest historical deal since the Cold War.”
In an interview with Fox News, bin Salman added that he hopes the deal will “reach a place that will ease the life of the Palestinians” – but stopped short of calling for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, which has been Riyadh’s official stance for two decades.
Netanyahu has made tightening relations with Saudi Arabia a linchpin of his premiership, although it is unclear what kind of concessions toward Palestinians would be allowed by his right-wing coalition.
In his interview with Collins, Netanyahu declined to say what kind of concessions he might make to Palestinians for the nromalization deal, but emphasized that he believes making peace with the broader Arab world would be a step toward resolving Palestinian-Israeli conflict – what he called an “outside-in” approach.
He also repeated a point made in his UN address earlier that day, saying that he believed Palestinians should “become part of the process” – but not wield the ability to veto it.
Speaking to the UN General Assembly in New York this week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned against trying to sideline his people’s demands in any possible normalization agreement.
“Those who think that peace can prevail in the Middle East without the Palestinian people enjoying their full legitimate national rights would be mistaken,” Abbas said at the UNGA.
Tensions in the region have skyrocketed in recent weeks, amid increased Israeli military raids on Palestinian cities in the occupied West Bank. Israel says the raids are intended to prevent or punish Palestinian militant attacks on Israeli civilians because the Palestinian Authority is failing in its security obligations.
The number of Palestinians and Israelis killed this year is on track to be the highest since the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, two decades ago.
Despite apparent momentum toward a normalization deal, Netanyahu’s relationship with US President Joe Biden has soured in recent months, as officials in Washington raise concerns over his efforts to scale back the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court.
The judicial overhaul has triggered the longest and largest protest movement in Israeli history, dividing the Knesset over a crucial proposal that critics say would threaten the country’s democracy.
Part of the overhaul is a law that would restrict the court’s ability to strike down government actions it deems “unreasonable.” Israel’s Supreme Court held hearings on the law to curb its powers earlier this month.
The US president had previously warned against the proposals, suggesting it is an erosion of democracy and could undercut US-Israel relations.
Asked by Collins about the damage the judicial overhaul poses to US-Israel relations, Netanyahu responded, “I think the damage is not the reform, it’s the way the reform is misrepresented, as some kind of collapse of democracy.”