ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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After talks in Saudi Arabia, senior White House officials to meet PM in Jerusalem

US Middle East envoy Brett McGurk and energy czar Amos Hochstein fly in from Jeddah; Cohen to talk by phone with Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US National Security Council Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and State Department energy envoy Amos Hochstein. (AP/collage)
US National Security Council Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and State Department energy envoy Amos Hochstein. (AP/collage)

After US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s meetings on Sunday with the Saudi crown prince in Saudi Arabia, senior US officials who participated in the meetings flew to Jerusalem to brief Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

US Middle East envoy Brett McGurk and energy czar Amos Hochstein flew from Jeddah to meet with Netanyahu, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, the Walla news site reported.

Sullivan spoke with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman about normalization with Israel, according to reports, and the White House officials will update Netanyahu about the conversations.

Netanyahu has pledged to establish diplomatic ties with the Saudis, even saying that he could get it done within the year.

While Saudi officials have privately expressed interest in such an agreement in recent years, the prospects of Israeli-Saudi normalization remain unclear.

Riyadh has presented extensive demands to the United States regarding major improvements to their bilateral relationship as a prerequisite for a deal. The hardline nature of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which has already garnered several blistering condemnations from the Gulf kingdom over its policies toward the Palestinians, has made normalization less palatable to both the palace and the street.

File: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia takes his seat ahead of a working lunch at the G20 Summit, Nov. 15, 2022, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia (Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Last Thursday, Sullivan said at a Washington, DC, conference that the US sees a benefit to its national security in brokering a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, underlining the Biden administration’s commitment to continue focusing on expanding the Abraham Accords in the coming period.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen is also scheduled to speak with senior US officials on Monday before heading to India. He will meet in Jerusalem with  Hochstein, according to Cohen’s office.

Hochstein was instrumental in bringing about the 2022 maritime deal with Lebanon.

Cohen will speak with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken by phone later in the day. He is slated to take off for India at 10:45 p.m., where he will meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

The conversations come amid a diplomatic push by the US in the wake of regional achievements by Iran and Washington’s global rival China.

In March, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore ties after seven years of estrangement. The deal was finalized in Beijing, underscoring the perception of weakened US influence in the Middle East.

US Senior Advisor for Energy Security Amos Hochstein arrives at at meeting in Beirut on July 31, 2022. (Anwar AMRO / AFP)

On Sunday, in another diplomatic win for the pro-Iran axis, Arab government representatives in Cairo voted to return Syria to the Arab League after a 12-year suspension.

China has been moving aggressively into the region, investing heavily in a series of roads, rails and seaports as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, which is designed to capture a greater share of trade flows from the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia and Europe.

But the Biden administration seems to be at start of a diplomatic counteroffensive. In Saudi Arabia on Sunday, Sullivan also met with his Saudi, Emirati, and Indian counterparts, discussing  a rail and port network linking the Gulf states and India.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, December 12, 2022. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The idea reportedly arose during meetings of the I2U2 forum, which includes Israel, India, the US, and UAE, though Israel was not part of Sunday’s discussion.

The Foreign Ministry would not comment on the agenda for Cohen’s talks with Blinken.

Cohen and Blinken spoke in late March, looking to patch up ties after a rare public spat between US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Israeli government’s efforts to drastically weaken the judiciary.

In the call, Blinken “reaffirmed the importance of the enduring US– Israel bilateral relationship,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said.

Blinken also discussed Iran, seen by Israel as a paramount threat, and renewed US support for a Palestinian state — an idea rejected by much of Netanyahu’s government.

In his statement, Cohen said the two discussed expanding relations with Arab states as part of the Abraham Accords, Israel’s efforts to qualify for the US visa waiver program, and the judicial overhaul legislation.

“Relations with the US is one of the pillars of our foreign policy. We will work in every way to strengthen the dialogue with our great friend, and I am happy that there is an open channel for conversation between me and the secretary of state,” Cohen tweeted.

They also spoke in January shortly after Cohen took office. Blinken asked Cohen to convey messages on to Russia, a senior diplomatic official told The Times of Israel.

And the pair met in person during Blinken’s Israel trip later that month.

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