President Biden’s top aides scrambled on Sunday to reaffirm their commitment to the idea of potential normalization of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, even as Israel prepares for the start of a full-scale war against Palestinian militants.
On several American talk shows, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken cast normalization as a choice between regional peace and the terrorism carried out by Hamas, the militant group in Gaza.
“It would really change the prospects of the entire region far into the future,” Mr. Blinken said on CBS News of Israel’s broadening of relations with Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Sunni Muslim nation in the region. “Now, who’s opposed to that? Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran. So, I think that speaks volumes. And there are really two paths before the region.”
Mr. Blinken added an important caveat, which was that the drive for a diplomatic deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia could not be a substitute for a two-state solution to address the needs of the Palestinians.
But American officials have been unable to make headway on that for decades. So in both the Trump and Biden administrations, a main diplomatic effort in the Middle East has been promoting normalization between Israel and Arab nations, with Palestinian officials and representatives playing no real role in the talks.
The theory for some American and Israeli officials and Arab leaders was that such deals, in the form of the Abraham Accords, would help isolate and suppress the Palestinian issue, which they saw as an intractable problem. Jared Kushner, former President Donald J. Trump’s son-in-law and a White House adviser who helped forge the accords, was a main proponent of that thinking.
To critics, that has been the crux of the problem, and one reason the United States and Israel were blindsided by the Hamas attack on Saturday. The crowds of civilians in Gaza cheering the Hamas fighters underscored the extent of anti-Israel hostility among Palestinians — hostility that American, Israeli and Arab officials have tried to ignore for years as they pushed normalization talks and what the Biden administration has called “regional integration.”
“Prior to the Hamas attack on Israel, there was bipartisan agreement, shared by most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, that the question of Palestine no longer matters in the Middle East,” said Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle East politics at Georgetown University. He added that he believed Arab leaders have relayed that same message in private because they dislike how their citizens mobilize around Palestinian issues.
“The masses of Arabs and Muslims had a different view of this equation — but who in D.C. cares about them?” Mr. Hashemi said. “All of the assumptions that informed U.S. policy toward the Middle East have now been upended by recent events. The question of Palestine is now back on the top of the regional agenda and the world agenda. I think this was the goal of the Hamas attack.”
In recent months, Mr. Biden and his top aides have attempted to negotiate with both Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel a complex three-way normalization deal by the end of the year. The new war will almost certainly throw off that timeline, but U.S. officials have been telling Saudi and Israeli officials in calls over the weekend that they are hopeful the discussions can continue.
They are also watching Saudi reaction carefully and gauging whether Prince Mohammed might change his stance, especially if the Israeli military kills many Palestinian civilians in a Gaza offensive, which would ignite outrage across the Arab world.
On Saturday, after the Hamas assault, the Saudi Foreign Ministry released a statement that did not explicitly denounce the attack and instead laid the blame on Israel, saying that the Saudi government had repeatedly warned “of the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the continued occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people and their legitimate rights and the repetition of systemic provocations against its sanctities.”
The statement took Mr. Biden and several of his top aides by surprise, people with knowledge of the events said, and it angered American lawmakers who have supported the negotiations.
One of those, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said in an interview that he had spoken with a senior Saudi official on Saturday and said, “If you want a normal relationship with the United States, this is not a normal statement.”
“You don’t want to be in the cheering section with Iran and Hezbollah,” he told them, as he recounted on Sunday.
Mr. Graham said an Israeli official told him on Sunday that Israel wants to continue the normalization process because it would be a way to weaken Iran, the main supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group that fought a war with Israel in 2006.
It is unclear whether Hamas carried out the attack in part to undermine the talks. A Hamas military commander did not cite the talks in a statement, though Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran are all opposed to any normalization with Israel. A Biden administration official said Saturday that it was too early to tell whether Iran had a hand in the operation.
On Saturday, in a phone call with Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Mr. Blinken said the kingdom should clearly condemn the attack, a State Department official said. But in a description of the call, the Saudi Foreign Ministry did not include any criticism of the attack or of Hamas, and said only generically that civilians should not be targeted and stressed “the need for all parties to respect international humanitarian law.”
Saudi officials appear to be taking a wait-and-see stance before continuing with the normalization efforts. Dennis Ross, who helped form Middle East policy for several U.S. presidents, said in an interview that he had spoken to a Saudi official after the attack, and that “for the moment, it is all on hold.”
“There are two basic variables: the number of casualties and the atmosphere related to that, and second, if the Israelis come out of this looking like they have decimated Hamas as an organization,” he added. “The point is, in the next few weeks as Israel focuses on dealing with Hamas in Gaza — and whether it also faces Hezbollah in the north — the results may well determine whether the Saudis will want to go ahead.”
Martin Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel, said the Israeli military response would complicate Prince Mohammed’s rapprochement with Israel.
The images on social media of an Israeli offensive will “exacerbate the anger in the Arab world and I think particularly in Saudi Arabia,” he said during a call with reporters on Saturday arranged by the Council on Foreign Relations. “This is going to be very hard for Mohammed bin Salman to control.”
The talks have so far centered on what Prince Mohammed is demanding from Mr. Biden: a mutual defense treaty, the building of a civilian nuclear program and access to more weapons. Although Prince Mohammed said in a Fox News interview last month that the Palestinian issue is “very important” and needs to be solved, he has not prioritized it in discussions with U.S. officials, including Mr. Blinken and Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, American officials said.
For some experts, that is emblematic of the entire problem around these talks and the Abraham Accords.
“While Jake Sullivan and Secretary Blinken have sold the accords as a magical formula for stability in the region, the only thing it will actually secure is strengthening — with an unprecedented U.S. security guarantee — an axis of dictatorships who will ally with Israel’s apartheid government and stay mum about the Palestinians,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of the advocacy group Democracy for the Arab World Now. The group was founded by Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was murdered by Saudi agents in 2018.
Although an Israeli government “will now be more able and more desperate to secure a deal with Saudi Arabia, it’s hard to imagine that even M.B.S.’ absolute rule can withstand moving forward with normalization now,” she said, using the initials of the Saudi prince. “It’s a good opportunity for the Biden team to reflect on their utterly failed approach to wheeling and dealing with autocrats as a road to stability in the Middle East.”
In Saudi Arabia, some analysts have been skeptical that Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing government would grant enough concessions to the Palestinians to satisfy the Saudi leadership. With a war starting, that is even less likely now.
“The Kingdom is aware that the current extreme government in Israel cannot deliver on the issue of peace,” said Hesham Alghannam, a Saudi political scientist. “In reality, Israel was not really ready to reach an agreement with the Palestinians that would give them the minimum of their needs.”
Abdulaziz Alghashian, a Saudi researcher who studies Saudi foreign policy toward Israel, said that any normalization agreements would not end the enmity of Arabs toward Israel as long as the Palestinian issue remains unresolved. “Israeli integration into the region won’t happen, ever, without a settlement,” he said. “And the way it’s going, quite frankly, it’s just going to be in a perpetual war there that’s going to spill over. So I don’t see it.”