Back in region, Blinken hashes over normalization, Gaza truce deal with Saudi prince

US secretary of state meets bin Salman to kick off tour that will also bring him to Egypt, Qatar and Israel; US official says ‘impossible’ to know if, when breakthrough in offing

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken leaves with Saudi Arabia's Minister of State and National Security Musaed Al Aiban, right, after a meeting with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 5, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken leaves with Saudi Arabia's Minister of State and National Security Musaed Al Aiban, right, after a meeting with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 5, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Saudi Arabia’s de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Monday at the start of a Middle East tour, as Washington continued in its effort to forge a Saudi normalization deal with Israel.

Blinken was in Saudi Arabia for the first of five stops in his fifth regional tour aimed at advancing diplomatic solutions to bring an end to the ongoing war in Gaza after four months.

The secretary discussed “building a more integrated region” with bin Salman, the State Department said following the approximately two hour meeting, using language widely understood to refer to an Israel-Saudi normalization agreement.

During their meeting in Riyadh, Blinken also “underscored the importance of addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza and preventing further spread of the conflict,” the State Department says.

Saudi Arabia has said it is still interested in normalizing relations with Israel but that it will be contingent on Israel agreeing to create a pathway for the future establishment of a Palestinian state — something that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has all but rejected.

“The secretary and crown prince continued discussions on regional coordination to achieve an enduring end to the crisis in Gaza that provides lasting peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” the US readout added.

Blinken did not respond to shouted questions from reporters on how it went as he returned to his hotel, but waved as he walked by. No Saudi readout was immediately available.

Blinken is also set to visit Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank this week and push to advance Egyptian- and Qatari-mediated conversations with Palestinian terror group Hamas on a deal to free Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip.

In Gaza, Palestinians said they hoped Blinken’s visit to the region would finally deliver a truce in the war that erupted with Hamas’s devastating October 7 attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

En route to Riyadh, a senior US official told reporters that the talks would be a centerpiece of the trip. “It’s not a coincidence that we are going to the three countries that are involved in those talks: Egypt, Qatar, and Israel,” the US official said, while also seeking to manage expectations: “Impossible to say if we’ll get a breakthrough, when we’ll get a breakthrough.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on February 5, 2024. (Saudi foreign ministry/X)

It is Blinken’s fifth Middle East trip since the October 7 assault. The 3,000 Hamas-led attackers who burst into southern Israel from Gaza also abducted 253 people of all ages, around half of whom are still being held as hostages.

Israel responded with an air, sea, and ground offensive to destroy Hamas and free the hostages.

Pieces interlocked

There are 136 hostages or captive remains still being held in Gaza, and their possible release by Hamas is among issues under discussion in the conversations that are mediated by Qatar and Egypt with the backing of the United States, in return for a humanitarian pause and the release of Palestinian security prisoners held by Israel. While officials have noted some progress, they cautioned that gaps remain.

The hostage deal and the humanitarian pause are now seen as instrumental in helping advance conversations on a normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which had been frozen in the immediate aftermath of October 7, but resumed in recent weeks.

Speaking in Davos last month, Blinken said there was “a new equation” in the Middle East in which Israel’s Arab and Muslim neighbors were prepared to integrate Israel into the region, but they needed to see a pathway to creation of a Palestinian state.

People look for survivors after an Israeli bombing in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, February 5, 2024. (AFP)

Conversations on who would govern Gaza after the war, how the Palestinian Authority needs to be reformed to potentially rule the enclave and obtaining security guarantees for Israel are now moving parts of the same equation, the US official said, adding that achieving results would require compromises from Israelis and Palestinians.

“If we get a humanitarian pause, we want to be in a position to move as quickly as possible on the various pieces of day after – reconstruction of Gaza, [Palestinian Authority] reform, governance of Gaza, two states, normalization. Some of which are obviously quite difficult and quite complex,” the official said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been at odds with the Biden administration over the creation of an independent Palestinian state, saying he would not compromise on “full Israeli security control of all territory west of the Jordan River.”

The talks are at a sensitive phase and any progress will not come easy, the US official added.

The Israel-Hamas conflict has escalated, as Iranian-backed groups have entered the fray and fired on US forces in Iraq and Syria, while Yemen’s Houthis attacked shipping routes in the Red Sea.

The US has been carrying out retaliatory strikes on Iran-backed militias across Syria, Iraq and Yemen, in response to a drone strike last week in Jordan that killed three American troops and wounded dozens.

Soldiers operate in Gaza in an image published February 5, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Blinken will nevertheless try to reinforce the message that the Biden administration neither seeks war with Iran nor wants the conflict to spread further, despite calls by some opposition Republicans in Congress advocating for attacks inside Iran.

A key priority is for Blinken to “deliver a message directly to countries in the region that the United States does not want to see the conflict escalated and will not escalate the conflict,” the US official said.

“It’s important to show up and say it on one-on-one.”

The Pentagon also said it does not believe Tehran wants war either. Iran has so far avoided any direct role in the conflict, even as it backs those militia groups.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Sunday refused to be drawn on whether the United States might attack sites inside Iran. He said Washington did not see a wider war, but would continue to respond if attacked.

There is no reason for the US campaign of retaliation, unfolding since Friday, to derail Washington’s conversations with Arab states and Israel on normalization and post-war Gaza, the senior US official said.

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