Establishing diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel is difficult but possible, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, reasserting that Washington is pushing to normalise ties between the two countries.
Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City on Wednesday, the top United States diplomat said both Saudi Arabia and Israel are “interested” in the prospect of normalisation.
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“It is incredibly challenging, hard – not something that can happen overnight,” Blinken said. “But it’s also a real prospect, and one that we’re working on because … both the Saudis and Israelis are looking for us to play a particular role in that effort. We’re very much engaged in it.”
Blinken visited Saudi Arabia earlier in June with the explicit objective of promoting normalisation after declaring it a “national security interest” of the US.
Although he did not secure a deal between the two countries during his trip to the region, his remarks on Wednesday showed that the administration of President Joe Biden is pushing on with that campaign.
The top US diplomat’s comments also came amid an apparent regional realignment after Iran and Saudi Arabia re-established their own diplomatic ties after years of animosity.
Few Arabs states have recognised Israel – a key US ally in the region – since its establishment in 1948, but former US President Donald Trump’s administration helped secure agreements to forge formal relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020.
Sudan also agreed in 2021 to join the normalisation deals, known as the Abraham Accords.
Israeli leaders have said they are seeking to include Saudi Arabia in the normalisation deals.
For their part, Saudi officials have said Riyadh is sticking by the Arab Peace Initiative, which conditions normalisation with Israel on its withdrawal from Arab territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state, as well as finding a “fair solution” to the plight of Palestinian refugees.
As the Biden administration continued to encourage deeper ties between Israel and Arab states, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has raged on – with the right-wing Israeli government expanding illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and intensifying violence against Palestinians.
US officials have voiced opposition to settlement-building while also stressing “ironclad” support for Israel. The US provides at least $3.4bn in aid to Israel annually.
On Wednesday, Blinken warned that unrest between Israelis and Palestinians makes it more difficult for Washington’s normalisation drive.
“We’ve told our friends and allies in Israel that if there’s a fire burning in their back yard, it’s going to be a lot tougher – if not impossible – to actually both deepen the existing agreements as well as to expand them to include potentially Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Blinken went on to suggest that settlement expansion is not in Israel’s interest.
“If Israel were to find itself – either by intent or by accident – responsible for the West Bank with three million Palestinians and 500,000-plus settlers, what is that going to mean in terms of the allocation of resources, including security resources, that Israel otherwise needs to be concerned about when it comes to Gaza, when it comes to Lebanon, when it comes to Iran?” Blinken asked.
As the occupying power that controls the West Bank’s ports of entry, air space, imports and exports and security, Israel is already responsible for the territory, according to international law.
Leading rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have accused Israel of imposing a system of apartheid on Palestinians.
Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center Washington DC, a think tank, told Al Jazeera earlier this month that prioritising Saudi Arabia-Israel normalisation was a “distorted interpretation” of US national interest.
He said the Biden administration is “weak” and looking for a boost before the presidential elections next year, so it is reinforcing the normalisation push despite its unpopularity among Arab people.
“Maybe those who advocate that line are basically telling us the absence of war and enmity between those two countries is cheaper and more secure for the United States. But frankly, when was the last time Saudi Arabia and Israel clashed militarily? Never,” Jahshan said.
Despite the violence in Israel and Palestine and the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, Blinken said on Wednesday that the Middle East is seeing a “de-escalation of conflict and crisis with one notable exception – Iran”.
US media reports have recently outlined a looming US-Iran informal understanding to ease tensions and partly curb Tehran’s nuclear programme, but Blinken said there is “no agreement in the offing” between the two countries.