US government prioritises Israel-Saudi ties
JTA – The Biden administration is fully invested in Israel-Saudi normalisation, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), on 5 June. He also said he didn’t expect a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian peace anytime soon.
“The United States has a real national security interest in promoting normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Blinken said on Monday to applause at a policy summit of AIPAC.
He said it was critical not to escalate the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but also made it clear that the Biden administration wouldn’t push for the revival of peace talks in the near term. “It’s no secret that today, the prospects for a two-state solution can feel remote,” he said. “But we’re committed to working with partners and with the parties to at least maintain a horizon of hope.”
The emphasis on regional normalisation over pushing Israel into reengagement with the Palestinians will be welcomed in Jerusalem, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is leading the most right-wing government in Israeli history and has intensified Israeli claims to disputed territory.
Netanyahu additionally has said his foreign policy priority is a deal with Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration last year helped broker the launch of Israeli overflights of Saudi air space.
Blinken formally announced that the Biden administration would name a senior official to manage the Abraham Accords, the 2020 normalisation agreements between Israel and four Arab nations that was a signature foreign policy achievement of the Trump administration and one of the few Trump policies embraced by Biden.
“We will soon create a new position to further our diplomacy and engagement with governments and private sector, non-governmental organisations, all working toward a more peaceful and a more connected region,” he said. “We’ve already achieved historic progress to deepen and broaden the Abraham Accords, building on the work of the Trump administration.”
Biden has already decided chosen former ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, for the role, Axios reported last month. Shapiro is already leading an Abraham Accords expansion initiative at the influential Atlantic Council think tank.
Among the agenda items for the 500 AIPAC activists when they visit most of the offices in Congress on Tuesday is lobbying for the passage of bills that would advance the Abraham Accords through diplomacy and co-operative projects.
Blinken emphasised continuing Biden administration unhappiness with some Israeli practices that have intensified under the new Israeli government, including the demolition of Palestinian homes and settlement expansion.
He also emphatically condemned the Palestinian Authority’s policies of subsidising the families of terrorists who were imprisoned or killed in the course of their action.
“We have to continue to reject unequivocally actions taken by any party that undermine the process toward a two-state solution; processes that use a solution that includes acts of terrorism; payments to terrorists in prison; and violence against civilians,” he said. Israeli and pro-Israel officials have long complained that pressure on Israel not to escalate isn’t matched with similar pressure on the Palestinians.
Blinken also alluded to Biden administration concerns about plans by Netanyahu’s government – suspended for the time being – to radically overhaul the courts system.
“We’ll continue to work with the Israeli government to advance our shared values and will continue to express our support for core democratic principles, including the separation of powers, checks, and balances and the equal administration of justice for all citizens of Israel,” he said.
Opponents of the proposed changes, who have been staging massive weekly protests in Israel and smaller demonstrations around the world, say the overhaul would sap the courts of their independence, and remove a bulwark that protects democracy and vulnerable populations, including women, Arabs, the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community and non-Orthodox Jews. The courts overhaul is one reason Biden has yet to invite Netanyahu to the White House.
AIPAC’s agenda also includes bills that would further isolate Iran, which Israel regards as its most dangerous enemy. At the outside of his term, Biden sought to revive the deal with Iran that exchanged its agreement to roll back its nuclear development in exchange for sanctions relief; Trump had pulled out of the deal.
More recently, United States officials have said Iranian actions, including advanced nuclear activity and its backing for Russia in its invasion of Ukraine, have put a freeze on those plans. Blinken said diplomacy remains the preferred way to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but he said pressure was the preferred method for now. Deterrence, he said to applause, “includes strengthening Israel’s military capabilities”.