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Friday, September 22, 2023

Saudis want steps toward two-state solution as part of normalization, Blinken says

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday reiterated the Biden administration’s position that efforts to expand the Abraham Accords are not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“In our judgment… that needs to involve a two-state solution,” he told the Pod Save the World podcast.

“It’s also clear from what we hear from the Saudis that if this [Israel normalization] process is to move forward, the Palestinian piece is going to be very important too,” Blinken said. “That’s clearly something that’s important to the Saudis in doing any kind of deal. It would be important to us too.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent months has insisted that the Palestinian issue is not as important to Saudi Arabia as many might believe, and that it has not been a significant component of the normalization talks that Riyadh has held with Washington.

Netanyahu’s top aide, National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi did say on Monday that Israel “supports a significant Palestinian component in the agreement with Saudi Arabia,” while clarifying that any Israeli concessions in that arena cannot come at the expense of security.

But he was quickly rebuffed by far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who said Hanegbi does not speak for the majority of the government, which opposes concessions to the Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, April 19, 2023. (Wafa)

Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir were also quick to tear into Netanyahu on Wednesday for agreeing to transfer armored vehicles to the Palestinian Authority — a measure backed by the Israeli security establishment, which views Ramallah as a partner in clamping down on terror activity in the West Bank.

The degree of pushback for a relatively marginal transfer that has been approved multiple times in recent years by previous governments highlights the limited wiggle room Netanyahu will have within his current coalition to make concessions to the Palestinians in the context of a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia.

Blinken was also pressed to explain why the Biden administration is expending so much political capital in order to boost leaders in Israel and Saudi Arabia, with which Washington is at odds over their records safeguarding democratic principles and human rights.

The secretary of state responded, “This… [is] not about individual leaders or individual governments. [It’s] about the substance of the issue and whether we can… advance a world that’s a little bit more peaceful, a little bit more prosperous, a little bit more full of opportunity.”

“There’s no question in my mind that if we could help achieve normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, it would move the world in that direction,” he added. “We’ve had extraordinary turmoil in that part of the world going back to at least 1979… Moving away from that, having more moderating and integrating dynamics carry things forward… would be a profound change for the good — a change that would not be tied to any specific government but to the fundamental interests of the countries involved.”

“If you have the leading Muslim country in the world… making peace with Israel, that’s going to have benefits that travel well beyond the region,” Blinken said.

Saudi Arabia hosted delegations of senior government officials from Washington and Ramallah last week to further discuss a potential normalization agreement.

Palestinians in the West Bank city of Ramallah burn pictures of Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (top) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, during a demonstration against the UAE-Israeli agreement to normalize diplomatic ties, August 15, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP/File)

Rather than boycotting the process as it did with previous normalization negotiations, the PA is engaging with the parties involved, aiming to leverage a potential deal in order to boost its standing.

Notably, it has presented a series of measures that it would like from the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel in the context of the normalization negotiations that fall well short of the demand for full statehood. The latter demand historically served as an effective veto over Mideast allies normalizing ties with Israel and one that the Arab world long backed. However, its relevance suffered a major blow in 2020, when the Trump administration managed to coax the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco to normalize ties with Israel, absent a two-state solution.

Following the US delegation’s trip to Riyadh, one of the senior members, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf, traveled to Israel to brief officials on the normalization talks.

The sides will likely pick up on the negotiations next week, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

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