© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to members of the media in the Treaty Room of the State Department in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2023. Mandel Ngan/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
By Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Turmoil in the occupied West Bank, where violence between Jewish settlers and Palestinians is spiraling, is making Israel’s goal of normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia “a lot tougher, if not impossible,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday.
The Biden administration earlier this week objected to an Israeli decision to authorize settlement construction, the latest move by the religious-nationalist coalition despite appeals form Washington not to fan rising tensions.
Asked at a Council on Foreign Relations event in New York whether the dimmed prospect for a Palestinian state – given factors including Israeli settlement expansion and the recent uptick in violence in the West Bank – made normalization with Israel’s neighbors more difficult, Blinken said this was part of his conversations with Israeli officials.
“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, adding that he has spoken about the issue with Israel Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on Tuesday.
“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.”
Saudi Arabia, a Middle East powerhouse and home to Islam’s two holiest shrines, gave its blessing to Gulf neighbors United Arab Emirates and Bahrain establishing relations with Israel in 2020 under the previous U.S. administration of Donald Trump.
Riyadh has not followed suit, saying Palestinian statehood goals should be addressed first.
In his June 6-8 trip to the kingdom, the potential normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states were a top priority for Blinken, although he acknowledged no progress should be expected imminently.
On Wednesday, he said the prospect of normalization was “incredibly challenging,” not something that can happen overnight, but that it was also “a real prospect.”
In June at a joint press conference with Blinken, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said any benefits normalization would bring would be limited if there was not a pathway toward a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.
A surge of violence over the past few weeks in the West Bank has included rampages by scores of Israeli settlers in Palestinian towns and villages that drew international condemnation and concern from the White House. The violence followed the killing of four Israelis in a Hamas gun ambush.
Last Friday, Israel’s national security minister urged tougher military action against Palestinian fighters in the occupied West Bank and urged Israeli settlers to expand their presence there.