Blinken acknowledges Israel may reject Saudi deal if pathway to Palestinian state required

US envoy Lew and Herzog suggest possibility of Israel-Saudi ties be seriously considered; in testimony to Congress, secretary of state attacked from both sides over Israel policy

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill on May 21, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura/Getty Images/AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill on May 21, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura/Getty Images/AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged for the first time on Tuesday that Israel might not be willing to embrace a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia if it means agreeing to clear progress toward a Palestinian state.

“The Saudis demand a ceasefire in Gaza and a pathway to a Palestinian state, and it may well be that Israel isn’t able, willing to proceed down this pathway,” Blinken said in testimony before Congress.

“It must decide if it wants to take advantage of this opportunity to achieve something sought from its founding,” he added.

Blinken faced criticism from the right and left during the session, with Republicans accusing the administration of failing Israel and Democrats saying it’s doing too little to help civilians in Gaza.

Furious protesters interrupted Blinken as he began his testimony before the Democratic-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee. There were shouts that he has “blood on his hands,” and Blinken flinched from a protester who approached him from behind waving a sign that said “criminal” before security officers carried her out of the room.

Earlier on Tuesday, US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew reiterated that forging formal Israeli-Saudi relations as part of an emerging trilateral deal involving Washington would require a calming of the Gaza war and a discussion of prospects for Palestinian governance.

“There’s going to have to be some period of quiet, I think, in Gaza, and there’s going to have to be a conversation about how do you deal with the question of the future of Palestinian governance,” Lew said.

“My view is that strategic benefit is worth taking the risk of getting into that conversation about. But that’s a decision that the government of Israel will have to make and the people of Israel will have to make,” he told a conference hosted by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) think-tank.

The United States on Monday described as “near-final” a bilateral defense pact with Saudi Arabia. Once completed, it would be part of a broad deal presented to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to decide whether to make concessions — including committing to paving the way for a future Palestinian state — to secure a normalization of ties with Riyadh.

Netanyahu had long promoted such a diplomatic prize, and in the months prior to Hamas’s October 7 massacre in southern Israel, was said to have been overseeing intensified efforts to clinch closer military and intelligence ties with Riyadh.

But, seven months into a war with Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip, whom Israel swore to eradicate following the October 7 terror onslaught, a ceasefire is elusive and Netanyahu has insisted that it is premature to discuss day-after Palestinian rule.

“Of course, we want to expand the circle of peace. We haven’t been shy about this,” Israeli government spokesperson Tal Heinrich said. “[But] any peace initiative that jeopardizes Israel’s security is not something that we see as real peace.”

Addressing the IDI event separately, President Isaac Herzog argued that bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia would be a setback to Iran-backed Hamas.

“I very much hope that this possibility is being seriously considered, as the empire of evil sought on October 7 to destroy the chance for normalization,” Herzog said.

President Issac Herzog speaks during a state ceremony for fallen Israeli soldiers whose burial place is unknown at Mount Herzl Military cemetery in Jerusalem on March 17, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“Our struggle, in the end, is not only a fight against Hamas. It is a wider, strategic, global and historic battle, and we must do everything to integrate into the grand vision of normalization.”

The Netanyahu government, however, has said a failure to defeat Hamas could harm Israeli credibility in the eyes of US-aligned Arab Sunni powers, which worry about Islamist terrorism.

Herzog, whose role is largely ceremonial, is a former leader of the center-left Labor party, which advocates an eventual two-state solution with the Palestinians.

However, in the aftermath of the October 7 massacre, in which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists slaughtered some 1,200 people across southern Israel — most of them civilians — and seized 252 hostages, Herzog pushed back against US rhetoric regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“In order to get back to the idea of dividing the land, of negotiating peace or talking to the Palestinians, etc., one has to deal first and foremost with the emotional trauma that we are going through and the need and demand for a full sense of security for all people,” he said in December.

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