Pair discusses advancing Saudi normalization deal

Blinken presses Dermer for steps to calm region, as US awaits pledged boost for PA

DC sit-down comes month after Jerusalem agreed to help PA deal with crises to mollify Washington, but never actually followed through; Smotrich blamed for delay

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

FILE - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) hosts Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, August 17, 2023. (Secretary of State Blinken, via Twitter)
FILE - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) hosts Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, August 17, 2023. (Secretary of State Blinken, via Twitter)

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer met in Washington with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, as the Biden administration looks for an update on Israeli pledges to boost the Palestinian Authority that have yet to be actualized.

On July 9, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet passed a decision to work to bolster the PA and keep Ramallah from the looming threat of both financial and political collapse.

However, the cabinet vote was largely symbolic and did not include any concrete steps. Even nominal steps Netanyahu’s office pledged in the spring have yet to be fully implemented, further sparking Washington’s ire.

According to a State Department readout of the Thursday meeting, Blinken emphasized to Dermer “the importance of Israel and the Palestinians taking affirmative steps to de-escalate tensions and bolster stability in the West Bank.”

There was no readout from Dermer’s office, which largely works outside the public eye.

Netanyahu’s office had promised that it would take steps to improve Palestinian livelihood in an effort to assuage Washington after the Defense Ministry advanced plans for thousands of new settlement homes in the West Bank, Dermer told ministers at an August 6 meeting, according to an Israeli source with knowledge of the talks.

According to the official, Dermer told the cabinet at the meeting that the delay risks harming Israel’s ties to the Biden administration.

Palestinian women line up at the Qalandia security checkpoint crossing from the West Bank into Jerusalem, for Friday Ramadan prayers, Friday, April 14, 2023. (AP/Nasser Nasser)

Though nothing concrete has been agreed upon, the Israeli source blamed Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich for the delay, noting his well-known stance against moves that benefit Ramallah and his control of the government’s purse strings.

Potential steps floated in Hebrew media have included opening a new industrial zone in Tarqumiyah near the southern West Bank city of Hebron, an idea long batted around by Netanyahu. Other measures could include easing the schedule for PA debt payments to Israel and restoring VIP permits for senior PA officials, though those steps will largely benefit well-connected, elite Palestinians and are unlikely to improve the lives of most others.

Dermer and Blinken also discussed “ongoing efforts to further Israel’s full integration into the Middle East,” the State Department said, an apparent reference to US efforts to broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

While in Washington, Dermer is also slated to meet with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, White House Middle East czar Brett McGurk and Biden energy envoy Amos Hochstein. The three White House officials are leading the administration’s effort to broker a normalization deal.

The New York Times reported earlier Thursday that senior White House officials have been meeting with top Democratic lawmakers in recent weeks in a tacit effort to rally their support for the heavy costs the US will have to pay in order to broker such an agreement.

Blinken on Thursday also “reaffirmed the United States’ enduring friendship and steadfast commitment to Israel’s security.”

“Blinken and Minister Dermer discussed cooperation on regional challenges, including threats posed by Iran and its regional proxies in Lebanon and elsewhere,” the State Department said.

The Axios news site reported that Dermer reportedly planned on using his Washington meetings to pass along an ask from Netanyahu that the Saudi normalization agreement includes a broad security deal with Israel aimed at deterring Iran.

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