Behind the latest push from the Trump team for Saudi Arabia to ‘normalize’ relations with Israel

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Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner landed in the Gulf this week in what observers call a last-ditch effort to secure the latest foreign policy victories for the Trump team with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman , known colloquially as MBS.

In particular, Kushner’s effort is to continue to weave a fabric of predominantly Muslim countries “normalizing” diplomatic relations with Israel – with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia next on the agenda to follow in the footsteps of the Emirates. Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Sudan. These countries have all signed deals with Israel in recent months under Kushner’s brokerage in what has come to be known as the Abrahamic Accords.

“It would mark an important victory before Trump leaves office, and something that Jared (Kushner) has been working very hard on,” a Washington source close to the talks told Fox News, who spoke under cover. anonymity. “It’s a serious effort that’s been on the cards for a long time. ”

Jared Kushner listens during an announcement in the Oval Office of the White House on Friday, September 11, 2020 in Washington. Bahrain has become the latest Arab country to agree to normalize relations with Israel as part of a broader diplomatic push by President Donald Trump and his administration to fully integrate the Jewish state in the Middle East. (AP Photo / Andrew Harnik)

This week’s meeting comes less than two weeks after historic trilateral talks reportedly held between MBS and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the futuristic Saudi city of NEOM. Saudi officials later denied the meeting took place.

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Yet many challenges still stand in the way.

According to the source, King Salman, 84, was the main bulwark against the deal given the unresolved Palestinian issue; in contrast, 35-year-old MBS was more inclined to take the plunge.

As the status of the Palestinians has apparently slipped from the Saudi priority role in recent years as tensions in Tehran have become a more pressing issue, the oil-flooded Gulf nation has publicly supported its ten-year-old policy of not recognizing Israel. until an autonomous Palestinian state is established.

“I doubt Saudi Arabia will sign a peace deal with Israel as long as King Salman is alive,” said Jim Phillips, senior researcher for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation. “Although Crown Prince Mohammad represents a new way of thinking for the Saudis, the king is committed to the outcome of a Palestinian state, which is not on the cards for the foreseeable future. ”

Many foreign policy experts and analysts agreed to Fox News that such a deal would be highly unlikely to be reached for the remainder of Trump’s tenure.

Harley Lippman, CEO and founder of tech company Genesis10 and one of the early orchestrators of the Abrahamic Accord, stressed that “Saudi Arabia is aware that it is seen as an outcast among the nations. around the world, especially with the Democratic Party in the United States. States. ”

“If Saudi Arabia does a deal right now under the Trump administration, that will only make Democrats more angry,” he said. “(But) the benefits of doing it now is another alliance building. It strengthens opposition to bad actors in the region and to the Muslim Brotherhood. Anything we can do to strengthen the relationship would be a deterrent. ”

However, Riyadh has been whispered as being on track to join the ranks of Kushner’s Middle East peace plan. But the Wall Street Journal reported this week that the crown prince has since blocked following last month’s presidential election, which projected Joe Biden as the winner.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman smiles as he attends the Future Investment Initiative summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2018. Prince Mohammed has denied knowledge of the operation that resulted in the death from Khashoggi. (AP)

According to Howard Stoffer, associate professor of national security at the University of New Haven, the chances of a negotiated agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel can be weighed between two perspectives.

“Saudi Arabia wants a deal done before Trump leaves office because Biden’s team could be more critical of the Kingdom due to MBS role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey and his poor human rights record, or b) the Saudis want to wait until Biden takes office to strengthen their ties with the new administration and give them a victory at the start of the new president’s tenure, ”a- he declared.

Yet Kushner’s current demand for the Kingdom to strengthen its ties with Tel Aviv comes at a time when tensions with Iran – archnemesis of Saudi and Israeli leaders – are accelerating, especially days after Israeli agents allegedly assassinated Iran’s leading nuclear scientist. .

The terms of the Trump team’s plan would have allowed Israel to expand its permanent borders and give the Jewish state broader security checks stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

During his four years as the president’s son-in-law, but also one of his closest and most loyal confidants, Kushner is said to have forged close ties with MBS and made several trips to the region. However, critics doubt that even close friendship will be enough to sign a deal before January 20.

But if Kushner returns home empty-handed this week, he could also end any short-term arms deal as regional concerns erupt. It’s still unclear what approach a Biden administration will take to selling weapons to Middle Eastern countries, but experts predict such a deal will go more smoothly under Trump than under his Democratic successor.

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During the election campaign, Biden advocated for normalization of trade between the Arab states and Israel, but he also pledged to take a stronger stand on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and expressed the desire to revert to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which was strongly despised by Israel. and the Gulf States.

“Any future deal would entail major economic benefits for Saudi Arabia, as well as arms deals for coveted US military hardware. It won’t be that easy, as exemplified by Congress’ ongoing efforts to block the F-35 deal with the Emirates due to their poor human rights record and involvement in conflicts in Yemen and China. Libya, ”assumed Raphael Marcus, visiting scholar in the War Studies Department at King’s College London.

In this file photo from December 10, 2019, Saudi King Salman chairs the 40th Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  King Salman of Saudi Arabia has been admitted to a hospital in the capital, Riyadh, for medical tests due to inflammation of the gallbladder, the Kingdom's Royal Court said on Monday, July 20, 2020 in a statement released by the official Saudi press agency.  (AP Photo / Amr Nabil, file)
In this file photo from December 10, 2019, Saudi King Salman chairs the 40th Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. King Salman of Saudi Arabia has been admitted to a hospital in the capital, Riyadh, for medical tests due to inflammation of the gallbladder, the Kingdom’s Royal Court said on Monday, July 20, 2020 in a statement released by the official Saudi press agency. (AP Photo / Amr Nabil, file)

Nonetheless, Stoffer argued that the arms issue was probably not a big factor in flattening the terms of the deal since Trump has already sold nearly $ 10 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia at the start of his tenure. .

“The Saudis may want to buy the F-35s that we sell to the UAE, but that alone would not be enough to spur them to normalize their relations with Israel,” he said.

Also on the agenda of the Gulf talks this week is apparent pressure from the White House to mend the three-year rift between the Arab states and Qatar. The schism came to the fore in 2017 when Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, cut diplomatic ties and imposed a sea, land and air blockade on their neighbor, blaming the wealthy state for Persian Gulf to support terrorist groups loyal to Iran, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

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US and Kuwaiti officials have already negotiated talks to correct the divide between Doha and Riyadh, but to no avail.

The Saudi Embassy in DC did not respond to a request for comment.

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