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Blinken unsure Israel will make compromises for Saudi deal

Tan KW
Publish date: Wed, 22 May 2024, 12:34 PM
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WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday he was unsure whether Israel was ready to make compromises to reach a deal to normalise relations with Saudi Arabia, notably on a pathway to a Palestinian state.

His frank assessment came after Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden's national security advisor, visited both countries and briefed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the "potential" for a historic accord.

But Blinken, who has repeatedly shuttled around the region since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, acknowledged doubts about whether Netanyahu and his hard-right government would satisfy the Saudis.

"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 normalisation," Blinken told a Senate hearing.

"Because that requires an end to (the war in) Gaza and that requires a credible pathway to a Palestinian state," he said.

Both Netanyahu and then US president Donald Trump have hailed Israel's 2020 normalisation with three Arab states - the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco - as a signature achievement.

US and Israeli leaders see Saudi Arabia as a much bigger prize as the kingdom is the guardian of Islam's two holiest sites.

But Saudi Arabia, in return for a deal, wants progress on a Palestinian state - an idea resisted by years by Netanyahu.

The kingdom also wants alliance-style security guarantees from the United States, which has long sought but struggled to reduce its Middle East footprint, as well as possible civilian nuclear cooperation.

On the US-Saudi negotiations, Blinken said, "I think we're at a point now where those agreements are very much within reach - very close reach."

The Biden administration hopes that dangling a Saudi deal can bring moderation to Netanyahu, who has been at loggerheads with the Biden administration over the civilian toll in Gaza.

Blinken, who appeared before two Senate committees on Tuesday, was repeatedly disrupted by protesters who called him a "war criminal" over US support to Israel.

Biden's push with Saudi Arabia comes despite criticism of the kingdom from parts of his Democratic Party and the president's own promise as a candidate to treat Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a "pariah" due to his human rights record.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham - a close ally of Trump, who is seeking to return to the White House in November elections - acknowledged that Congress may be more likely to approve a US-Saudi deal under Biden.

Graham predicted that most Republicans would vote for a security agreement. Biden presumably could persuade some wavering Democrats who want to hand their president a victory.

"I think this needs to be done on your watch," Graham told Blinken.

Graham urged Israel "not to let this moment pass."

"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," he said.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, pointed to the killing in 2018 of US-based Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi - an operation that US intelligence linked to the crown prince - as well as Riyadh's 2022 move for the OPEC+ oil cartel to cut production in defiance of Biden's personal pleas.

"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.

"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?"

 - AFP

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