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US-Saudi talks amid reports of far-reaching diplomatic plan for Middle East

But Jeddah’s demands for brokering an Israeli-Palestinian respite are reportedly a ‘non-starter’ and a ‘sucker’s bet’

The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has held talks with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in Jeddah, in what was reported to be part of a bid for an ambitious and far-reaching diplomatic breakthrough in the region.

The White House said Sullivan and the prince discussed on Thursday “initiatives to advance a common vision for a more peaceful, secure, prosperous and stable Middle East region interconnected with the world”.

New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, said that based on an interview with Joe Biden last week, he believed Sullivan went to Jeddah to “explore the possibility of some kind of US-Saudi-Israeli-Palestinian understanding”.

The deal would amount to a grand bargain involving a US-Saudi security pact and the normalisation of Saudi-Israel diplomatic relations, in which recognition of Israel would be exchanged, on Washington’s insistence, on some improvement in the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories, such as a halt to Jewish settlement building, and a promise never to annex the West Bank.

Friedman said Biden had yet to make up his mind whether to proceed and the talks in Jeddah were exploratory. Any such deal, he said, would be “time-consuming, difficult and complex”.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA Middle East analyst and White House adviser, said the idea of such a multifaceted agreement was politically far-fetched.

“The Saudis don’t want to see Joe Biden re-elected. They strongly prefer Donald Trump being back in the White House. He never questioned them on human rights issues, he supported the Yemen war 100%, he did nothing to them after [Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident] Jamal Khashoggi was murdered,” Riedel said.

“So there is a big question mark about why would the Saudis do something which would be so beneficial to Joe Biden. I don’t see that in the works, and I would assume the Biden people are smart enough to recognise this.”

Getting the Senate to approve a security pact with Saudi Arabia would also be extremely difficult. Republicans would not want to help Biden achieve diplomatic progress and most Democrats would resist US commitments to a Saudi monarchy with such a bad human rights record, and demand substantial gains for the Palestinians, which Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-rightwing Israeli government would not accept.

Khaled Elgindy, an expert on the region at the Middle East Institute, said that the extremists in Netanyahu’s cabinet would “shoot down” proposals of a settlement freeze and territorial transfers within the West Bank to Palestinian Authority control, “never mind taking substantive steps toward a two-state solution, which is simply not on the table”.

“The other aspect of this that I find unsettling is the way it totally sidesteps Palestinian interests and even Palestinian agency,” Elgindy said. “It’s like we’ve gone back to the days when the US, Israel and Arab states could decide the fate of Palestinians without any Palestinian involvement. This alone should disqualify it from being taken seriously – but of course it won’t.”

Friedman said Saudi demands would include guarantees that the US would come to the kingdom’s defence if attacked, that Washington would allow a US-monitored Saudi civil nuclear programme, and that the kingdom could buy an advanced US air defence system, Thaad.

Matt Duss, former foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, called the first demand a “non-starter” and the second and third “very bad ideas”.

“Biden is weighing a world historical sucker’s bet,” Duss said on social media.

Kirsten Fontenrose, a former senior director for the Gulf at the national security council during the Donald Trump administration, was also pessimistic about the chances for success.

“I expect the Palestinian Authority to refuse to recognise a Saudi-Israel peace deal … the Israeli government to refuse a promise never to annex; the US Congress to refuse a collective defense pact with Saudi Arabia; the Saudi leadership to refuse to agree publicly never to weaponise their nuclear programme as long as Iran is close to doing so,” Fontenrose said.

Riedel said there were more modest diplomatic gains to be won from engagement with the Saudi leadership, such as a further winding down of the conflict in Yemen, and Saudi aid to the occupied territories in the effort to forestall a third intifada, a Palestinian uprising against the expansion of settlements and other measures from an extreme Israeli government.

The White House said that in his Jeddah talks, Sullivan had “reviewed significant progress to build on the benefits of the truce in Yemen that have endured over the past 16 months and welcomed ongoing UN-led efforts to bring the war to a close”.

Source : The Guardian