Blinken to Talk to Saudis About Normalizing Ties With Israel

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Monday that he planned to talk to Saudi leaders and other Gulf state officials this week during a visit to Saudi Arabia about the possibility of the kingdom normalizing ties with Israel. The Biden administration supports such a move, but it should not come at the expense of “progress between Israelis and Palestinians” and a two-state solution, he said.

“The United States has a real national security interest in promoting normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Blinken said at a conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “We believe we can and indeed we must play an integral role in advancing it. Now, we have no illusions that this can be done quickly or easily.”

Mr. Blinken and other Biden aides are trying to grapple with politics in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States that would make normalization difficult.

U.S. officials also have to deal with moves by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia that could put more strain on his relations with President Biden and worsen congressional views of the kingdom. Growing tensions would hamper negotiations over the conditions for normalization that Saudi Arabia demands.

Saudi Arabia announced Sunday that it was cutting oil production by one million barrels per day for at least one month starting in July to try to drive up oil prices. That could worsen global inflation at a time when Mr. Biden is heading into an election year. Mr. Biden was outraged in October when Saudi Arabia led the OPEC Plus oil-producing nations in a coordinated production cut.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who has been widely criticized in Israel and the United States for proposals to hamper an independent judiciary, would get a political boost if Saudi Arabia were to normalize relations with his country. But the far-right coalition he leads has supported actions that critics say have fueled violence between Palestinians and Israelis, making it more difficult for Saudis to support normalization.

Mr. Biden’s aides are trying to gauge whether Prince Mohammed’s conditions are consistent with U.S. security interests and would be approved by a skeptical Congress.

Saudi Arabia’s demands include security guarantees from Washington that would help deter potential attacks from Iran or its partners; U.S. support on building a civil nuclear power program in Saudi Arabia, which would include uranium enrichment in the kingdom; and more weapons sales.

There is disagreement within the Biden administration over meeting these conditions. And many Democratic lawmakers and some Republican ones want to limit U.S. support of Saudi Arabia. They criticize the kingdom’s human rights abuses and point to the mass killings of civilians in Yemen by the U.S.-armed Saudi military and the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist, by Saudi agents.

Mr. Blinken plans to hold meetings in Saudi Arabia from Tuesday through Thursday. Two White House officials, Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein, have traveled recently in the region to discuss normalization with officials. So has Barbara Leaf, the top State Department official for the Middle East. But last week, she told U.S. senators that “there’s a lot of misreporting and a lot of hyperventilation in the press” on potential normalization, especially based on leaks from Israeli officials.

Mr. Blinken said Monday that the State Department was creating a new position to “further our diplomacy and engagement with governments, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, all working toward a more peaceful and a more connected region in order to achieve significant historic progress to deepen and broaden the Abraham Accords, building on the work of the Trump administration.” Those accords are agreements supported by the Trump administration that resulted in diplomatic normalization between Israel and several nations in the region.

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