Blinken: West Bank unrest makes Israel-Saudi deal much ‘tougher, if not impossible’

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the ongoing unrest in the West Bank has made US efforts to broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia “a lot tougher, if not impossible.”

It was the starkest warning yet from the Biden administration, which to date has only acknowledged through anonymous officials that Israeli policy in the West Bank has “tainted” efforts to further integrate Israel into the region. Blinken went further during a Council on Foreign Relations event in New York by suggesting that the West Bank turmoil could tank the normalization drive altogether.

“We’ve told our friends and allies in Israel that if there’s a fire burning in their backyard, 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,” Blinken said.

“It’s also, at least in our judgment as Israel’s closest friend and ally, profoundly not in Israel’s interest for this to happen — both because of the added degree of difficulty that this presents for pursuing normalization agreements, or deepening them, but also because of the practical consequences,” he added.

Just last week, Morocco decided to cancel plans to host a highly anticipated summit next month for foreign ministers from Israel, the US and several Arab countries in response to a pair of Israeli moves to significantly expand its settlements in the West Bank.

The first was a decision to advance plans to build some 5,700 new settlement homes, shattering in just six months the record for most West Bank houses for Jews green-lit in a single year.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Wednesday, June 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government also passed a resolution that gave far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich practically full control over planning approval for West Bank construction and dramatically expedited the process for expanding existing settlements.

Saudi Arabia has made clear that most of its demands for a normalization agreement are of Washington, as it seeks to boost its security partnership with the US. However, it has also stressed that no deal with Israel will be finalized without a significant gesture to the Palestinians that would improve prospects for a two-state solution, a US official told The Times of Israel in May.

Settlement expansion, which makes a two-state solution more difficult to secure, is therefore likely to also hinder Saudi normalization efforts, US officials have maintained.

Blinken said he raised how the West Bank unrest was impacting normalization efforts during a Tuesday call with Foreign Minister Eli Cohen. The secretary in that conversation also urged Israel to hold those behind a series of settler rampages accountable, noting that many of those impacted in one of the towns targeted were American citizens.

Hundreds of settlers rampaged through Palestinian towns across the West Bank in revenge for the killing of four Israelis in a terror attack last week outside the Eli settlement. One Palestinian was killed during the rioting and another 15 Palestinians have been killed over the past week, the majority due to clashes with Israeli soldiers.

Israel has arrested a handful of suspects but has yet to file any indictments. No charges were ever filed against the suspects arrested after a similar rampage in February.

No Iran deal ‘in the offing’

Later during the Wednesday CFR event, Blinken said that no new nuclear agreement was on the table with Iran, after quiet new diplomacy between the adversaries.

“There is no agreement in the offing, even as we continue to be willing to explore diplomatic paths,” he said.

“We’ll see by their actions,” Blinken said of the future relationship, calling on Iran to choose to “not take actions that further escalate the tensions” with the United States and in the Middle East.

US President Joe Biden took office with hopes of returning to a 2015 nuclear accord with Iran scrapped by his predecessor Donald Trump. But EU-mediated talks collapsed and mass protests in Iran made Washington increasingly hesitant to strike a deal with the clerical state.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, visits an exhibition of Iran’s nuclear achievements, at his office compound in Tehran, Iran, June 11, 2023. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Via AP)

Diplomats say that indirect talks have quietly resumed in recent months with Oman as an intermediary, with the focus largely on the status of US prisoners in Iran.

A diplomat familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Monday that recent indirect talks with Iran have centered around the release of American detainees held by Tehran, not nuclear enrichment. The US is prepared to allow Iran to access several billion dollars in funds currently held by countries abroad for humanitarian purposes and to pay off debts on a case-by-case basis.

The talks on restoring the 2015 nuclear accord broke down over disputes on the extent of relief from sweeping US sanctions imposed by Trump and over when Iran would return to compliance by pulling back from countermeasures taken in response to the US withdrawal from the deal.

Blinken said that the Biden administration had made a “good-faith effort” with European powers as well as rivals China and Russia to return and that for a time “that looked possible.”

“Iran either couldn’t or wouldn’t do what was necessary to get back into compliance,” he said.

AFP contributed to this report.

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