Blinken doubtful of Saudi-Israel relations

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Antony Blinken, Benjamin Netanyahu

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has expressed uncertainty over Israel’s readiness to make the necessary compromises to achieve a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, particularly concerning the establishment of a Palestinian state. This candid assessment came after Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, visited both Israel and Saudi Arabia to brief Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the potential for a historic accord.

In his statement during a Senate hearing, Antony Blinken admitted that he could not ascertain whether Israel, led by Netanyahu and his hard-right government, would meet Saudi demands. “I can’t tell you whether Israel — whether it’s the prime minister or the country as a whole — is prepared to do in this moment what would be necessary to actually realize normalization,” Blinken remarked. He highlighted that such a deal would require the conclusion of the ongoing war in Gaza and the establishment of a credible pathway to a Palestinian state.

The context for these negotiations is complex and multifaceted. In 2020, Israel normalized relations with three Arab states — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco — an achievement celebrated by both Netanyahu and then US President Donald Trump. However, normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia is seen as a much more significant milestone due to the kingdom’s status as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites.

Saudi Arabia has made clear that progress on a Palestinian state is a prerequisite for any normalization deal with Israel. This demand has long been resisted by Netanyahu, complicating the prospects for an agreement. Additionally, the kingdom is seeking alliance-style security guarantees from the United States, a country that has historically sought to reduce its involvement in the Middle East, as well as possible civilian nuclear cooperation.

Despite these challenges, Blinken expressed optimism regarding the US-Saudi negotiations, stating, “I think we’re at a point now where those agreements are very much within reach — very close reach.” The Biden administration hopes that the potential of a deal with Saudi Arabia will encourage Netanyahu to moderate his stance, especially given the civilian toll in Gaza that has strained US-Israel relations.

Blinken’s appearances before two Senate committees were marked by repeated interruptions from protesters who accused him of being a “war criminal” due to US support for Israel. This domestic opposition highlights the contentious nature of the US’s Middle East policy and the Biden administration’s efforts to balance various political and strategic interests.

The push for a Saudi deal also comes despite criticism of the kingdom from within Biden’s own Democratic Party. Biden, during his presidential campaign, promised to treat Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a “pariah” due to his human rights record, particularly the 2018 killing of US-based Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. US intelligence has linked this operation directly to the crown prince. Moreover, Riyadh’s decision in 2022 to cut oil production through the OPEC+ cartel, against Biden’s personal appeals, further complicates the administration’s position.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Trump who is running for re-election, acknowledged that a US-Saudi deal might be more feasible under Biden’s administration. He predicted that most Republicans would support a security agreement with Saudi Arabia and believed that Biden could persuade enough Democrats to secure a legislative victory. “I think this needs to be done on your watch,” Graham told Blinken, urging Israel “not to let this moment pass.”

Graham also emphasized the need for Israel to seize the opportunity, stating, “To my friends in Israel, I will never abandon your security, but we’re going to have to sit down as a world and make some hard decisions.” His comments underscore the broader geopolitical stakes and the need for significant diplomatic concessions from all involved parties.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, voiced concerns about the potential deal with Saudi Arabia, given the kingdom’s controversial actions. Murphy pointed to the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the kingdom’s defiance of US oil production requests as reasons for caution. “In the national security world, a mutual defense or a security treaty is a sacred trust. This is a country that four years ago chopped to pieces an American resident journalist,” Murphy told Blinken. He questioned the urgency of finalizing a deal with Saudi Arabia without clear commitments from Israel. “Why the rush to get a deal done with Saudi Arabia when we don’t even know the shape of the commitments that Israel may ever be willing to make?”

This debate highlights the intricate balance the Biden administration must strike between advancing diplomatic goals in the Middle East and addressing domestic and international criticisms. The potential normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia represents a significant diplomatic opportunity, but it is fraught with challenges that require careful navigation. Blinken’s cautious optimism and the varied responses from US lawmakers illustrate the complex interplay of strategic, ethical, and political considerations at play.

The outcome of these negotiations could reshape the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. However, the road to achieving this ambitious goal is paved with significant hurdles, including deep-seated regional conflicts, domestic political pressures, and the broader implications for US foreign policy. As the situation develops, the actions and decisions of the involved parties will be closely scrutinized, with far-reaching consequences for international relations.

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