US: Phone calls not a sign of normalization breakthrough

Blinken phones Netanyahu, Abbas amid US-brokered normalization talks with Riyadh

US secretary of state discusses Iran, Abraham Accords, Palestinian issue with Israeli PM; talks West Bank tensions, efforts to preserve prospects for two-states with PA leader

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (C), and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (Collage/AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (C), and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (Collage/AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held phone calls with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas within hours of one another this week, as the US works to broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which it also hopes to use as leverage to advance a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said during a subsequent White House briefing that while Blinken’s calls with Netanyahu and Abbas were more than just routine, they do not “portend any imminent breakthrough or action with respect to the question of normalization.”

Blinken spoke to Abbas on Monday and to Netanyahu on Tuesday, the State Department said, offering few substantive details regarding the content of either conversation.

In the call with Netanyahu, Blinken discussed boosting US-Israel ties, “expanding Israel’s regional integration, countering threats posed by Iran” and the Palestinian issue, the State Department said.

Blinken “reiterated continued US support for policies that ensure freedom, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” the US readout added, regurgitating a line used by officials in US President Joe Biden’s administration in just about every public statement they issue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The statement notably did not include a mention of US support for a two-state solution, but State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel insisted during a later briefing that “there is absolutely no change in policy” and that the administration still supports the framework.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in his Jerusalem office on June 18, 2014. (Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv)

Netanyahu’s office did not immediately issue a readout of its own from the call, which came hours after the White House announced Biden’s decision to nominate former US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew as the next ambassador to Israel.

Lew’s nomination comes at a particularly sensitive period in the Israel-US relationship, as Netanyahu’s government aims to further advance its highly controversial judicial overhaul despite repeated pleas from Washington that such far-reaching reforms only be advanced with consensus support, which the hardline coalition sorely lacks.

If confirmed, Lew will also be tasked with reining in the Israeli government’s efforts to further expand the settlers’ footprint in the West Bank in addition to its hardline policies toward the Palestinians more broadly, which have coincided with the most deadly year in the conflict since the Second Intifada.

In the call with Abbas, Blinken “expressed continued concern about ongoing violence in the West Bank,” the State Department said.

Blinken also “reaffirmed US support for measures to advance freedom and security and improve the quality of life for the Palestinian people,” stressing his “support for a two-state solution and opposition to actions endangering its viability,” the US readout added.

The readout from Abbas’s office similarly highlighted talking points long employed by the PA, calling out IDF raids of Palestinian towns, settler violence and other Israeli actions that hamper prospects for a two-state solution.

The PA president again urged Blinken to back Ramallah’s bid for full-member status at the United Nations; to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem, which served as the de facto mission to the Palestinians; to allow the Palestinians to reopen their diplomatic office in Washington; to scrap a 1987 US law deeming the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its affiliates a terror organization; and to resume direct aid to Ramallah.

Palestinians with national flags confront Israeli troops in the West Bank village of Kfar Qaddum, near the Jewish settlement of Kedumim, on June 9, 2023. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

Several of those requests have also been raised by Palestinian officials in talks with American and Saudi counterparts in the context of US-brokered negotiations for a normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem, a US official and a Palestinian official told The Times of Israel last week.

The officials said the measures were the kinds of “irreversible” steps that the PA is seeking through the normalization process, the officials said.

Saudi Arabia is prepared to forgo its long-maintained public stance against normalizing ties with Israel in the absence of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Riyadh is still not expected to agree to a deal with Jerusalem that does not include a significant advancement toward Palestinian sovereignty, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Rather than boycotting the process as it did with previous normalization negotiations, Ramallah is engaging with the parties involved, aiming to leverage a potential deal in order to advance its statehood effort.

A Palestinian delegation led by PLO executive committee secretary-general Hussein al-Sheikh is traveling to Riyadh this week for talks with Saudi officials on the matter. The visit will coincide with one by an American delegation led by White House Middle East czar Brett McGurk and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf, who will also be meeting with Saudi counterparts to discuss a potential Israel normalization deal.

McGurk and al-Sheikh will also meet along with their delegations while they’re both in Riyadh, Sullivan said Tuesday.

Israeli security forces are seen at the entrance to the West Bank city of Hebron, after a deadly shooting attack in the area, August 21, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

McGurk met earlier Tuesday in Washington with Israeli Opposition chair Yair Lapid, who voiced his opposition to the US allowing Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium on its soil in exchange for normalizing ties with Israel.

State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said during a Tuesday briefing that the US delegation will discuss “a range of regional and bilateral matters” and insists that this was a “long-scheduled visit.”

McGurk will subsequently visit Bahrain in preparation for Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa’s upcoming visit to Washington, Patel said.

Leaf will proceed to travel to Amman followed by Jerusalem to brief Jordanian and Israeli officials on her talks in Saudi Arabia, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Gianluca Pacchiani contributed to this report.

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