During Cairo visit, Blinken says ‘progress’ made on Israel-Saudi normalization

Following trip to Jeddah and ahead of arrival in Israel, US secretary of state says discussions are ‘getting close to a point where we’ll have agreements’

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, March 20, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, March 20, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday that the path toward normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, delayed by the ongoing war in Gaza, was seeing “very good progress.”

Blinken said at a press conference in Cairo that his visit to the Gulf kingdom on Wednesday had yielded “a very good discussion” with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan.

The talks had focused both on the war in Gaza and on relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, where Blinken had made three visits since the start of the war on October 7 following Hamas’s shock attack on Israel.

The US top diplomat said he could not “put a time frame” on normalization, but that discussions were “getting close to a point where we’ll have agreements.”

According to a senior state department official who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, further progress is contingent on the resolution of a handful of issues.

Blinken said it would be a “historic opportunity for the two nations and for the region as a whole.”

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (R) meets with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, at the Tahrir Palace in Cairo, on March 21, 2024. (Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

Earlier Thursday, a senior State Department official traveling with Blinken said the talks in Saudi Arabia focused on the bilateral portion of a larger plan in which Saudi Arabia would recognize Israel in return for credible progress on the creation of a Palestinian state.

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, has never recognized Israel and has long insisted it would not do so without a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel’s hardline government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is staunchly opposed to Palestinian statehood, which Saudis have said is an essential component to any normalization agreement.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private diplomatic talks, said only a “handful of issues” remain to be resolved in the US-Saudi component of the plan. That part of the plan is widely believed to include US defense guarantees and aid in building a civilian nuclear program in Saudi Arabia.

Blinken met Thursday in Cairo with the foreign ministers from Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia the UAE, and the Palestinian Authority “to continue working on a path for enduring regional peace,” he said.

The Saudi Al-Hadath TV channel reported Thursday that discussion included a proposal that would end the war in Gaza and create a pathway to the establishment of a Palestinian state in exchange for a wide Arab normalization effort with Israel. The plan would reportedly include the Palestinian Authority taking control of the Gaza Strip in a post-war scenario.

In January, Netanyahu reportedly rejected a proposal from Blinken that would have seen Saudi Arabia normalize relations with Israel in exchange for Jerusalem agreeing to provide the Palestinians with a pathway toward statehood.

An agreement between Jerusalem and Riyadh had appeared to be on the horizon last year, before the outbreak of the deadliest ever war in Gaza, sparked when Hamas launched a brutal onslaught against southern Israel, killing close to 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 253 people hostage. The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 31,000 people have been killed in fighting since, an unverified figure that does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed over 13,000 operatives since the beginning of the war in Gaza and 1,000 inside Israel on October 7.

Prior to the outbreak of the war, Washington had been working for months to broker a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia that would would have marked a historic breakthrough in the Middle East and a diplomatic feat in an election year for US President Joe Biden.

The Biden administration had secured a “basic framework” on an agreement just a week before the attacks of October 7, which derailed any progress.

Over the past five months of war, Saudi Arabia has been mildly critical of Israel’s conduct in the fighting against Hamas, and has reiterated that it would not establish ties with Israel until IDF troops leave the territory and an agreement is reached towards the creation of a Palestinian state.

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