WASHINGTON (AP) — Less than three weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat beside President Joe Biden and marveled that a “historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia” seemed within reach — a diplomatic advance that he predicted could lead to lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Biden was equally optimistic, telling Netanyahu during their meeting in New York, “If you and I — 10 years ago — were talking about normalization with Saudi Arabia, I think we’d look at each other like, ‘Who’s been drinking what?’”
Now, the outbreak of war between Israel and the Palestinians after a devastating Hamas attack on Israeli soil is threatening to delay or derail the yearslong, country-by-country diplomatic push by the United States to improve relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
The so-called normalization push, which began under former President Donald Trump’s administration and was branded as the Abraham Accords, is an ambitious effort to reshape the region and boost Israel’s standing in historic ways. But critics have warned that it skips past Palestinian demands for statehood.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Hamas attacks may have been driven in part by a desire to scuttle the United States’ most ambitious part of the initiative: the sealing of diplomatic relations between rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Middle East’s two greatest powers share a common enemy in Iran, a generous military and financial sponsor of Hamas.
Such a pact between Jerusalem and Riyadh would be a legacy-defining achievement for Biden, Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It’s one that could pave the way for even more Arab and Muslim-majority nations to abandon their rejection of Israel since its 1948 founding in lands long inhabited by Palestinians. Under Trump, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco all signed on to normalization agreements with Israel.
But the startling attack by Hamas — and much of the Arab world’s response to it — has also raised new questions about whether Palestinian ambitions for sovereignty can be put aside while the U.S. tries to help Israel move ahead with improving relations with the rest of its Middle East neighbors.
With Netanyahu vowing to turn all Hamas hideouts in Gaza into rubble, the region is now bracing for even more death and destruction and an expansive military operation by Israel. Biden is set to address the attacks on Israel in a White House speech on Tuesday afternoon.
“We’re going to see a rather significant operation from air, land and sea that costs many, many, many lives,” said Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think this dynamic of normalization will likely slow down or come to a halt, at least for a period of time.”
The attacks were a shock to American, Israeli and Saudis officials, who all were riding high on the prospect that an Israeli-Saudi agreement was starting to come into focus.
Netanyahu, in a CNN interview last month, called the potential pact “a quantum leap” for the region. The Saudi crown prince also noted the steady progress, telling Fox News Channel, “every day we get closer.”
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan noted at a recent event hosted by The Atlantic that challenges in the Mideast remained, but the amount of time he was spending on crisis and conflict in the region compared with his recent predecessors was “significantly reduced.”
“The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” Sullivan said.
In a matter of days, that optimism has vanished.
Social media showed crowds take to the streets with Palestinian flags in Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait and elsewhere in the hours after the Hamas attack. A policeman in Egypt’s coastal city of Alexandria opened fire on Israeli tourists, killing two Israelis and one Egyptian.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry in a statement soon after the attacks did not condemn Hamas. Instead, the ministry noted that it had repeatedly warned that Israel’s “occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations” led to this moment.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby declined to comment on the Saudi response.
“We still believe that normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia is not only good for the people of those two nations but for the American people and for everybody else in the region, and we have every intention to continue to encourage a process where normalization can occur,” Kirby said.
Yousef Munayyer, who heads the Palestine-Israel program at the Arab Center, a Washington think tank, said the Saudis in their statement were reminding the administration that “we’ve been telling you guys over and over again that if you ignore the Palestine issue the region’s going to explode. And I think there’s just been a tremendous amount of hubris on the part of the Biden administration thinking they could do that.”
To be certain, Biden and U.S. officials have privately made clear to Netanyahu that any deal needed to include significant concessions for Palestinians, although members of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition have made clear that an independent Palestinian state is not something they’d abide.
The Saudis had said they, too, expected Israel to make concessions. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said “there is no other way” to solve the conflict than by establishing a Palestinian state.
Other allies in the region had also underscored that Palestinian concerns could not be overlooked.
King Abdullah II of Jordan, whose country in the early 1990s became the second Arab nation after Egypt to sign a peace deal with Israel, told a global summit last month that the prospect of a normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel offered promise for the Middle East but no guarantee of stability in itself.
“This belief, by some in the region, that you can parachute over Palestine, deal with the Arabs and work your way back — that does not work,” the Jordanian king said then. “And even those countries that have Abraham Accords with Israel have difficulty moving publicly on those issues when Israelis and Palestinians are dying. So unless we solve this problem, there will never be a true peace.”
U.S. officials say they intend to press ahead, but they also acknowledge efforts are unlikely to bear fruit while there is an active conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Blinken had been planning a trip to the Middle East, with stops in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, later this month, but those plans are now on hold, according to three U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations.
While Blinken may still visit Israel and several neighboring countries to look for ways to ease tensions, he is no longer expected to go to Saudi Arabia, and the Morocco stop for a meeting of foreign ministers in the so-called Negev Forum will almost certainly be postponed, according to these officials. The Negev Forum brings together the top diplomats from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States to look at ways to advance Arab-Israeli cooperation with an eye also on improving conditions for the Palestinians.
Analysts note that the Saudis have reason not to walk away from efforts at forging a normalization deal.
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that in the long term bin Salman is looking to diversify the oil-rich kingdom’s economy and strengthen its security. As part of any pact, Saudi Arabia is pushing Biden for a nuclear cooperation deal and defense guarantees from the U.S.
“He needs normalization and will continue to move forward,” Dubowitz predicted. Of the crown prince, Dubowitz added, “the Saudis had better be careful because they are playing with fire in Washington.”
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.