Hard to see how US can balance demands and broker Middle East peace plan

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Senior White House official Brett McGurk is visiting Riyadh this week to discuss with senior Saudi and Palestinian officials the Biden administration’s efforts to secure normalisation of Saudi relations with Israel.

McGurk, the White House’s chief adviser for North Africa and the Middle East, is accompanied by US state department senior official Barbara Leaf, who held talks to Palestinian officials in Jordan last week. They are to meet Saudi foreign minster Faisal bin Farhan and national security adviser Musaed bin Mohammed al-Aiban, and Palestinian envoys who arrived in the Saudi capital on Monday.

McGurk and Leaf are seeking to inject momentum into the stalled normalisation effort. This visit follows talks in Jeddah in July between US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Saudi crown prince and prime minister Mohammed Bin Salman. Since 2002, Riyadh has adhered to the kingdom’s peace plan, which calls for full Israeli withdrawal from Arab territory occupied in 1967 in exchange for full Arab relations with Israel.

Saudi Arabia’s current price for normalisation is a Nato-type defence treaty with the US, unrestricted US arms sales to the kingdom, US provision of technology and equipment for a civilian nuclear programme, and significant Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. To encourage Palestinian participation in ongoing talks to the US, Riyadh has resumed financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. Funding amounting to $200 million (€186 million) a year was suspended in 2020.

Palestine Liberation Organisation chief Hussein al-Sheikh has been tasked with reiterating Palestinians’ demands. They seek an end to Israeli settlement expansion, a guarantee that Israel will not annex the West Bank, the transfer to the authority of portions of the 60 per cent of the West Bank under Israel’s full control and the reopening of the US consulate in East Jerusalem, which was closed by former president Donald Trump. Leaf has told Palestinian officials the US would not back the Palestinian demand for full UN membership for Palestine, which is a non-member observer state.

In campaign mode in advance of next year’s election, US president Joe Biden would like a major foreign policy success. However, Congress is unlikely to accept Riyadh’s demands. Legislators are likely to oppose, in particular, demands for a Saudi nuclear programme, which could result in risky regional proliferation.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke on Monday of the possibility of normalising relations with Saudi Arabia during a visit to Cyprus, but his finance minister Bezalel Smotrich stated earlier, “We will not make any concessions to the Palestinians, it’s a fiction.”

While Palestinians expect to gain money and token gestures from a deal, the Saudis are reluctant to recognise Israel without securing “Palestinian cover”, international relations professor Ayman Talal Yousef, of the Arab American University in Jenin in the West Bank, told the London-based Middle East Eye website. According to the Washington Arab Center’s opinion index, 84 per cent of Arabs oppose recognition of Israel.