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Saudi Arabia Warns U.S.: Israeli Invasion of Gaza Could Be Catastrophic

Saudi officials have firmly warned the United States in recent days that an Israeli ground incursion into Gaza could be catastrophic for the Middle East.

They delivered that exhortation to senior U.S. officials in multiple conversations, according to a Saudi official and a second person with knowledge of the discussions.

The exchanges came as tensions rippled outward from the Gaza Strip. Essentials like water and fuel are increasingly scarce as Israel bombards and besieges the enclave in response to the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that rules Gaza.

One Biden administration official said it was evident that the Saudis did not want an Israeli invasion of Gaza. Saudi officials also conveyed the warnings about a ground war to American lawmakers. The U.S. official, as well as the two people familiar with the Saudi warnings, all asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut and a member of the Armed Services Committee, was one of 10 senators who met last weekend with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

“The Saudi leadership was hopeful that a ground operation could be avoided for reasons of stability as well as the loss of life” and Saudi officials warned it would be “extremely harmful,” Mr. Blumenthal told The New York Times on Thursday.

In a photo provided by the Saudi Royal Court, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received President Joko Widodo of Indonesia in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, this month.Credit…Bandar Algaloud/via Reuters

The United States has repeatedly asserted Israel’s right to self-defense since the Hamas attack that killed more than 1,400 people in Israel.

“Let there be no doubt,” President Biden said recently. “The United States has Israel’s back.”

At the same time, Mr. Biden asked Israel to delay the invasion, U.S. officials have said, for a range of reasons, including buying more time for hostage negotiations, getting more humanitarian aid into Gaza and doing better war planning. There are signs, too, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is hesitant about an invasion.

The White House declined to comment.

In a call this week, Prince Mohammed and Mr. Biden “agreed on pursuing broader diplomatic efforts to maintain stability across the region and prevent the conflict from expanding,” the White House said in a statement on Tuesday, which did not mention discussions about a ground invasion.

After a period of deeply strained relations, Prince Mohammed and President Biden found common ground earlier this year over exploring a potential deal in which Saudi Arabia would recognize Israel and establish diplomatic ties. Mr. Biden and his top aides were eager to reach an agreement, arguing that it would reshape the Middle East. But they also acknowledged the many difficulties in the diplomacy.

Many Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia, have long refused to establish a diplomatic link with Israel before the creation of a Palestinian state. But over the past decade, that calculus has shifted as the region’s authoritarian leaders weigh negative public opinion toward a relationship with Israel against the economic and security benefits it could offer — and what they might obtain from the United States in return.

In 2020, Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates established ties with Israel under an agreement called the Abraham Accords, brokered by the Trump administration. Those deals were unpopular among ordinary people in the region — where the Palestinian cause remains a potent rallying cry — and only grew more so over time as the Israeli government turned further right and expanded settlements in the West Bank.

From the start, the discussions between the Biden administration and Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s political heavyweight, were more expansive and delicate than the Trump-era talks over those earlier agreements.

Saudi officials said they would only be willing to consider normalization with Israel in exchange for benefits to be delivered by the United States: a U.S.-Saudi mutual defense pact, American support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program and more U.S. weapons sales.

American and Saudi officials also held discussions about concessions that Israel might need to make to the Palestinians. But in an interview with Fox News last month, Prince Mohammed seemed to signal that they might fall short of Palestinian statehood.

A camp for displaced people in the city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza on Wednesday.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

Then Hamas attacked Israel, and Israel responded by laying siege to the more than two million Palestinians who live in Gaza, cutting off water and electricity and bombarding the enclave with airstrikes.

On Thursday, Gaza’s health ministry released the names of 6,747 people it said had been killed since the war began, adding that another 281 bodies had yet to be identified.

Furious protesters have taken to the streets across the Middle East to express solidarity with the Palestinians, condemning Israel and the United States. Saudi officials denounced Israel’s siege and called for a cease-fire — even as they tried to keep the kingdom’s national narrative focused on the prince’s plans to transform Saudi Arabia into a global business hub.

Yet in private meetings and calls with U.S. officials, Saudi leaders have presented a far blunter message. The prince and other Saudi officials struck an ominous tone with the Senate delegation, said Mr. Blumenthal and Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who helped organize the visit.

The prince “understands that this was an act of terror,” Mr. Graham said, referring to the Hamas attack on Israel. “But he would like a measured response that won’t cascade into a longer and deeper conflict.”

Scholars who study Hamas have warned that any attempt to eliminate the group, as Israel has vowed to do, could plant the seeds for more violence and extremism, deepening Palestinian feelings of subjugation under Israeli occupation and control.

Inspecting the damage caused by Israeli airstrikes in Khan Younis on Thursday.Credit…Yousef Masoud for The New York Times

An invasion could also fuel unrest in neighboring countries and could be particularly destabilizing for governments already struggling to contain discontent over economic pain or political repression, such as Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan.

Iran has long backed Hamas, and Iran-backed regional militias hostile to Israel have threatened to open new fronts in the war, depending on Israel’s military response. Saudi Arabia is a potential target.

Since the war began, Saudi officials have returned to specific calls for a substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace process and for the creation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

“If we are not willing to overcome all of the difficulties, all of the challenges, all of the history that is involved in this issue, then we will never have a real peace and security in the region,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, told reporters this week.

Despite the escalating violence, it appears that American and Saudi officials are holding on to hopes of a normalization deal with Israel.

Without that formal step, the limited ties that exist between the two countries — separated by a 22-mile drive through Jordan — have remained largely clandestine.

Senators said they left Riyadh with the impression that Saudi leaders would still like to recognize Israel when the right moment arrives.

American and Israeli officials often frame normalization as a way to help contain Iran.

Iran is Saudi Arabia’s most prominent regional rival. Prince Mohammed launched a disastrous Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen in 2015 aiming to oust the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who nonetheless remain firmly in power there.

But the crown prince, racing to diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy, has recently pursued a less aggressive approach and sought to build bridges. Earlier this year, he re-established diplomatic ties with Iran. Mr. Blumenthal, however, said that a Saudi Arabia-Israel pact seemed unlikely before Israel “concludes its operation.”

During the call on Tuesday, Prince Mohammed and Mr. Biden “affirmed the importance of working toward a sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians as soon as the crisis subsides,” the White House said in its statement.

Prince Mohammed stressed the urgent need to halt military operations and return to a peace process to ensure that the Palestinians “obtain their legitimate rights,” the Saudi government said in its own statement. Neither statement mentioned a Palestinian state.

The potential deal that Saudi officials had been working on before the war included a path to a state for the Palestinians, the person with knowledge of the talks said.

Framing the prospect of building ties with Israel as a way to obtain greater rights for the Palestinians could allow Prince Mohammed to limit popular backlash in his own country, where hostility toward Israel and support for the Palestinians is widespread.

In response to questions about the Saudi warnings, the State Department said that “although U.S. diplomatic efforts are currently focused on the immediate crisis, we remain committed to the long-term goal of a more stable, prosperous and integrated Middle East region, including through normalization and advancement of a two-state solution.”

Before the Hamas attacks, however, American officials and analysts in Washington briefed on the talks said that the U.S.-Saudi discussions had been focused mainly on the Saudi security demands of the United States. Those officials and analysts said there had been no detailed discussion of the Palestinian issue.

An essay by Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, posted on the Foreign Affairs site this week, said that American officials were “committed to a two-state solution.”

But editors had allowed Mr. Sullivan to rewrite an earlier version of the essay from before the Oct. 7 attacks. The original version, published in the print edition of the magazine, makes no mention of Palestinian nationhood. It merely said that, although tensions persisted between Israel and the Palestinians, the Biden administration had “de-escalated crises in Gaza.”

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