Blinken says US almost ready with Saudi rewards for Israel normalization


The United States is nearly ready with a security package to offer Saudi Arabia if it normalises relations with Israel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday, as he seeks incentives for Israel to support a Palestinian state.

Blinken was visiting the kingdom on his seventh trip to the region since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, which has responded with a relentless offensive in Gaza that has drawn global criticism.

President Joe Biden's administration, while supporting Israel, has sought moderation from its government by dangling the prospect of formal relations with Saudi Arabia -- a potential game-changer, because the Gulf state is guardian of Islam's two holiest sites.

As part of any deal, Riyadh is expected to insist on a path to statehood for the Palestinians as well as alliance-style security guarantees from Washington, which has repeatedly tried -- with limited success -- to shift its focus out of the Middle East.

"The work that Saudi Arabia, the United States have been doing together in terms of our own agreements, I think, is potentially very close to completion," Blinken said.

"But then in order to move forward with normalisation, two things will be required -- calm in Gaza and a credible pathway to a Palestinian state," he told a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Riyadh.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, who met Blinken in Riyadh, also said that US-Saudi agreements were "very, very close".

"Most of the work has already been done," he said.

But he said that a pathway to a Palestinian state was "the only way it's going to work".

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a long-standing opponent of Palestinian statehood, which the Biden administration sees as the only long-term solution after Israel's campaign to eliminate Hamas in Gaza.

But before October 7, Netanyahu had viewed Arab normalisation as his legacy, after negotiating formal diplomatic relations with three countries -- the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco -- in 2020.

Even if the Biden administration reaches an agreement with Saudi Arabia, it would still need to be approved by Congress, where lawmakers, especially from Biden's Democratic Party, have been critical of the kingdom on human rights grounds.

Especially controversial have been Riyadh's calls for civilian nuclear cooperation with Washington, with critics warning of a potential arms race with Iran.

Blinken was expected to meet later Monday with Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to speak further on normalisation.

- Integrating defense over Iran -

It is Blinken's first trip to the region since the long shadow war between Israel and Iran broke out into the open.

Israel has been widely blamed for an April 1 strike in Syria that levelled an Iranian diplomatic building, killing several members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards including two generals.

Tehran responded by firing hundreds of drones and missiles at military sites in Israel, which was suspected afterwards of carrying out a strike in central Iran. Neither attack caused major damage or casualties.

Blinken -- who raised the situation last week with leaders of China, which has warm relations with Iran -- suggested that diplomacy had halted the cycle of retaliation.

"We did come very close to an escalation or spread of the conflict, and I think because of very focused, very determined efforts, we've been able to avoid it," Blinken said.

Speaking earlier on Monday to foreign ministers of six Gulf Arab countries, Blinken said the episode "highlights the acute and growing threat from Iran but also the imperative that we work together on integrated defense".

Blinken said the United States would hold talks in the coming weeks with the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council on integrating air and missile defense and boosting maritime security.

The United States already has strong military relations with all the Gulf Arab states, but relations among the six have seen their ups and downs.

Blinken said that the region had a choice on its future, including "one ridden with divisions and destruction and violence and permanent instability".

Gulf Arabs, through their meeting with the United States, were choosing "greater integration" and "greater peace", he said.

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