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US says it wants to push Israel-Saudi pact, but only if Riyadh honors its values

State Department spokesman says a ‘recalibration’ of relations with Riyadh that takes human rights into account will help prevent war with Iran and broaden region’s circle of peace

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

(From L-R) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman. (AP/collage)
(From L-R) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman. (AP/collage)

The US wants to advance a wide-ranging agenda in its relationship with Saudi Arabia that includes brokering a peace deal between the Gulf power and Israel, but will only be able to do so if Riyadh improves its human rights record, officials said Monday.

While the Biden administration has spoken about its desire to expand the list of countries that have normalized relations with Israel, this appeared to be the first time in which Saudi Arabia was mentioned in that context.

“We seek to accomplish a great deal with the Saudis: to end the war in Yemen and ease Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, to use our leadership to forge ties across the region’s most bitter divide[s],” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price at the opening of his daily press briefing.

“Whether that’s finding the way back from the brink of war with Iran, and to a meaningful regional dialogue, or forging a historic peace with Israel,” said Price.

The State Department spokesman went on to explain that the US “can only address these many important challenges in a partnership with Saudi Arabia that respects America’s values.”

The remarks were part of a lengthy statement putting the Friday publication of a US intelligence report accusing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of green-lighting the murder of Saudi journalist and royal critic Jamal Khashoggi in the context of US President Joe Biden’s plan to “recalibrate” bilateral ties with Riyadh.

Price highlighted other issues of concern for the US, including its military offensive in Yemen and the regime’s broader treatment of critics and rights activists.

“Looking ahead, Saudi actions will determine how much of this ambitious, shared, positive agenda we can achieve,” Price said.

Israel has no diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia but has maintained long-held clandestine ties that have strengthened in recent years, as the two countries have confronted a shared threat in Iran.

Sources in Jerusalem have said former Secretary of State Pompeo and Netanyahu met with bin Salman in the Red Sea city of Neom last November. The meeting, denied by Riyadh, fueled frenzied speculation in Israel that a normalization deal might be close.

Since September, Israel has struck normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, with Trump officials saying a deal with Saudi Arabia is “inevitable.” Saudi officials, however, have said a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians must precede recognition of the Jewish state.

State Department Spokesman Ned Price speaks to reporters during a news briefing at the State Department in Washington, on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Pool via AP)

The Trump administration courted Riyadh as it sought to isolate common foe Iran and withheld tough criticism of alleged rights abuses in the kingdom.

Breaking with Trump’s approach, Biden said Friday ahead of the intelligence report’s release that Washington would “hold [Saudi Arabia] accountable for human rights abuses.”

Last month, Hebrew media reported that senior Israeli and Saudi officials recently held several phone calls to discuss the Biden administration’s plans to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.

During the conversations, the Saudis expressed concern over the new US administration and lamented its focus on human rights violations in the kingdom.

According to a report last month, Israel was planning to lobby the Biden administration not to pressure regional allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates on matters related to human rights, fearing that doing so could imperil the Jewish state’s improved ties with some Arab countries and strengthen Iran.

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