Blinken to Saudi as window shrinks on Middle East mega-deal

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - RIYADH, April 28 — Washington’s top diplomat will travel to Saudi Arabia on Sunday as the deadline approaches on a landmark — and, analysts say, long-shot — deal that would see the kingdom recognise Israel.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Riyadh comes nearly seven months after the eruption of war in Gaza put the brakes on what was intended as a signature foreign policy achievement for his boss, US President Joe Biden.

It also comes as Americans prepare to vote in November on whether to give the 81-year-old Biden a second term, an election process that could scramble what progress has been made on Saudi-Israeli normalisation so far.

In September, before Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel sparked the war, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Fox News that “every day we get closer” to a deal that could also bolster the Washington-Riyadh security partnership.

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However Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s 38-year-old de facto ruler, also said the Palestinian issue was “very important” for Riyadh, adding: “We need to ease the life of the Palestinians.”

As fighting drags on and mediators struggle to lock in a truce, Saudi officials have reiterated their insistence on recognition of an independent Palestinian state.

Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, told the World Economic Forum in January that normalisation would be impossible without an “irrevocable” pathway towards that state’s creation.

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While it is no surprise Saudi Arabia would link ties with Israel to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “the price for normalisation, especially on the Palestinian front, has certainly gone up,” said Saudi analyst Aziz Alghashian.

“What can be said is that there needs to be something more tangible than theoretical,” he said.

“In other words, more irreversible steps that are clear-cut, rather than just promises.”

The US State Department said that Blinken will discuss “a pathway to an independent Palestinian state with security guarantees for Israel”, during talks in Riyadh on Monday and Tuesday.

Progress disrupted

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, has never recognised Israel and did not join the 2020 US-brokered Abraham Accords that saw its Gulf neighbours Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Morocco, establish formal ties with Israel.

During a debate in 2019, Biden vowed to treat Prince Mohammed as a “pariah” over human rights concerns.

But after Biden visited the Saudi city of Jeddah and fist-bumped the crown prince in 2022, his administration actively pursued a Saudi-Israeli deal that would build on the Abraham Accords, a foreign policy win for his predecessor Donald .

The Saudis indicated they would want more than their Gulf peers got, bargaining hard for benefits like US security guarantees and assistance with a civilian nuclear programme with uranium enrichment capacity.

In the months that followed, Israeli and American officials issued bullish statements, while the Saudis said characteristically little.

Their leverage, strengthened by their status as perceived leaders in the Muslim world, was never in doubt, said Elham Fakhro of the Chatham House think-tank.

“Saudi Arabia is aware of how badly the Biden administration wants a deal,” Fakhro said.

“It is also aware that no other Arab country holds as much leverage as it does in lobbying for the Palestinians.”

Any momentum stalled abruptly with Hamas’s October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Israel’s retaliatory military campaign to destroy Hamas has killed more than 34,000 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

Riyadh has consistently denounced Israeli forces’ conduct in Gaza, accusing them of “unchecked heinous war crimes” just this week.

A tall order

Even without the Gaza war, sealing the Saudi-Israeli-US deal would be a tall order.

“The US will have to deliver on something and none of Saudi Arabia’s conditions (or requests) are easy,” Fakhro said.

“A defence pact would have to go through Congress and its approval there is far from certain.”

The rancour of election season in the US makes bipartisan deal-making even more difficult.

In any case, Netanyahu has repeatedly made clear his opposition to a Palestinian state, saying last month that Israelis rejected any attempt to “ram” it “down our throats”.

Given Saudi Arabia’s position, that means an imminent breakthrough is unlikely.

Long-time observers of Saudi diplomacy stress that should come as no surprise, despite the recent flurry of meetings and statements.

“From the beginning, Saudi Arabia was clear: addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a manner that satisfies the Palestinians is a precondition for normalisation with Israel,” said Saudi analyst Hesham Alghannam.

“Saudi Arabia is genuine in its condition that normalisation is linked to the end of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.” — AFP

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