Meeting Saudi crown prince, Blinken calls for pressure on Hamas to release hostages

US secretary of state, in Riyadh, tells MBS of need to prevent further attacks by terror group and prevent Gaza conflict from spreading; latter says working ‘to calm the situation’

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center right, returns to his hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, after meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, October 15, 2023. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center right, returns to his hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, after meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, October 15, 2023. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for pressure on Hamas during a meeting Sunday with the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, which seen its ties with the Jewish state warming but has put normalization on hold after the Palestinian terror group sparked war by launching an abrupt, devastating attack on Israel.

The top US diplomat met for nearly an hour in the early morning with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the royal’s farm residence in the Riyadh area, a US official said.

Blinken has been touring the region after over 1,500 Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel from the Gaza Strip on October 7 and began a murderous rampage through the south, slaughtering some 1,300, mostly civilians, and taking about 150 hostages captive to Gaza. Since then Hamas has continued to rain rockets on southern and central Israel, causing more injuries and deaths.

The attack sparked a massive Israeli retaliatory campaign targeting the Islamist group in Gaza that has killed more than 2,300 people, according to the Hamas-controlled health ministry. Israel says it is targeting terrorist infrastructure and all areas where Hamas operates or hides out, while issuing evacuation warnings to civilians in regions it plans to attack.

“Very productive,” Blinken said when asked about the meeting after returning to his hotel.

Blinken “highlighted the United States’ unwavering focus on halting terrorist attacks by Hamas, securing the release of all hostages and preventing the conflict from spreading,” US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

“The two affirmed their shared commitment to protecting civilians and to advancing stability across the Middle East and beyond,” Miller said.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a session on ‘Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment’ as part of the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, on September 9, 2023. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/POOL/AFP)

Following the meeting with Blinken, a statement from the Saudi crown prince highlighted Riyadh’s diplomatic outreach “to calm the situation,” the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.

The news agency said those efforts involved calls to regional leaders, including Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

The prince also reiterated the Gulf kingdom’s condemnation of attacks on civilians and “vital interests that affect their daily lives,” while stressing the need for Palestinians to “obtain their legitimate rights and achieve just and lasting peace,” SPA said.

Before the violence, the Saudi crown prince had spoken of progress in US-led diplomacy to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Saudi Arabia has put the process on hold amid the violence, and Blinken has said that disrupting Saudi-Israel normalization efforts may have partly motivated the Hamas attack.

The kingdom is the guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites, making the potential recognition a historic coup for Israel, which in 2020 normalized relations with three other Arab states including the United Arab Emirates.

Next stop: Egypt

As part of a package, Saudi Arabia — which like Israel has tense relations with Iran’s Shiite clerical state — has been seeking security guarantees from the United States, its longtime partner and consumer of its oil.

But Prince Mohammed is deeply controversial in the United States, where intelligence linked him to the 2018 killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based Saudi journalist.

Riyadh denies this, blaming rogue operatives.

US President Joe Biden — who once vowed to make the kingdom a pariah — drew protests at home after a visit to Saudi Arabia last year when he shared a friendly fist-bump with Prince Mohammed.

Israelis take cover as a siren sounds a warning of incoming rockets fired from the Gaza Strip in Rehovot, Israel, October 13, 2023. (Dor Kedmi/AP)

In the period since the Hamas onslaught, Prince Mohammed has spoken with regional leaders, telling them he is seeking to deescalate the situation. The crown prince spoke last week with Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi as well as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Last Thursday, Blinken was in Israel where he pledged that the Jewish state will never have to defend itself alone for as long as America exists.

The secretary, who is Jewish, told of his grandfather fleeing pogroms in Russia, and of his stepfather surviving concentration camps in the Holocaust. “I understand on a personal level the harrowing echoes that Hamas’s massacres carry for Israeli Jews, indeed for Jews everywhere,” he said.

Blinken will travel later Sunday to Egypt, the sixth Arab country he will visit as he seeks to pressure Hamas and prevent the war from spreading. Of particular concern is Israel’s northern border that has seen almost daily skirmishes — some deadly — between the IDF and Hamas operatives in Lebanon, as well as Iran’s proxy terror group Hezbollah. A civilian was killed Sunday when an anti-tank guided missile was launched at an Israeli border town.

An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from southern Israel towards the Gaza Strip, Oct. 15, 2023 (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Iran denies any involvement in the Hamas attack but there are fears that at Tehran’s prodding, Hezbollah is seeking to enter the war and use its massive stockpile of missiles against Israel, opening a second front.

Egypt is a key intermediary between Israel and Hamas. US officials say Cairo worked on an arrangement to let US citizens leave the Gaza Strip but Hamas impeded their movement on Saturday to the sole border crossing at Rafah.

The US said it was arranging for a ship Monday to take its nationals from Israel to Cyprus from where they can make their own way home. Rocket barrages from Gaza have caused most airlines to cancel their flights to and from Israel.

Other countries have also made arrangements to airlift their nationals out of Israel.

The German government on Sunday urged its nationals not to travel to Israel, the Palestinian territories or Lebanon because of the “escalation of violence” following Hamas’s onslaught.

Passengers look at a departure board at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, as flights are canceled and delayed because of a massive surprise attack by Hamas, on October 7, 2023. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP)

The travel warning is at the highest level given by the German government.

“Due to the escalation of violence in the region in connection with the massive terrorist attacks by Hamas on October 7, we warn against traveling to the countries and areas mentioned,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

“A travel warning is usually only issued if there is a risk to life and limb,” the ministry added in a thread on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Germany had already issued a travel warning for the Gaza Strip and certain areas of Lebanon.

In its statement, the foreign ministry said it would continue to “do its utmost” to support citizens seeking to leave Israel or the Palestinian territories.

In addition to commercial flight options and two German air force planes bringing back citizens from Israel on Sunday, the German government said its military stood ready to do more.

“If necessary, further air force flights can be arranged. In the event of a deterioration of the situation, the Bundeswehr is also ready for a military evacuation operation.”

Commercial travel out of Lebanon was still possible, the statement added.

German citizens in the affected areas were urgently advised to register with the electronic crisis list ELEFAND to be kept up to date on exit travel possibilities, the ministry said.

Most Popular
read more: