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Blinken says Israel-Saudi normalization remains a priority as he wraps visit to the Kingdom

By Jennifer Hansler, CNN

(CNN) — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday reaffirmed the Biden administration’s commitment to normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia as he wrapped up his first solo visit to the Kingdom.

At a press conference in Riyadh, the top US diplomat said he discussed the matter of normalization in his meetings, “and we will continue to work at it and to advance it in the days, weeks and months ahead.”

“We fully support Israel’s integration into the Middle East and from day one, we have been working both to deepen some of the existing agreements, and also expand them to other countries. That includes Saudi Arabia,” Blinken said.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, speaking alongside Blinken, noted that “it’s quite clear that we believe that normalization is in the interest of the region, that it would bring significant benefits to all. But without finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people, without addressing that challenge, any normalization will have limited benefits.”

Following his visit to Saudi Arabia, Blinken spoke by phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about “areas of mutual interest, including expanding and deepening Israel’s integration into the Middle East through normalization with countries in the region,” according to a State Department readout.

Blinken’s trip to Riyadh and Jeddah, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, comes as the administration works to navigate a complicated and at-times tense relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Last October, the Biden administration reacted furiously to a decision by OPEC+ to slash oil production, with Blinken saying that Saudi Arabia knew that the OPEC+ decision to cut oil production “would increase Russian revenues” and that the United States is reviewing “consequences” for that decision.

However, the administration did not react harshly to an announcement from Saudi Arabia just days before Blinken’s trip that it would once again slash oil production, nor a call between the Crown Prince and Russian President Vladimir Putin to praise their cooperation on OPEC+ less than a day after Blinken met MBS.

Brian Katulis, the vice president of Policy at the Middle East Institute, noted the difference in tone between the reaction in October and this week, noting that “part of that was just this work to try to rebuild trust and confidence on multiple fronts.”

“I think what you see in this visit is – and what happens with these visits is – they’re often the capstone or the end product of months of diplomatic work behind the scenes, and much of that work between the US and Saudi has been trying to put things on a steadier footing, a more solid foundation,” he said.

Former Ambassador James Jeffrey, who is now at the Wilson Center, told CNN that in addition to the trip being an effort to “see what the chances are moving forward on diplomatic recognition or otherwise a closer relationship with Israel,” it was “more of the trying to restore relations that have had a quite bumpy period in the last two and a half years.”

Prior to taking office, President Joe Biden harshly criticized Saudi Arabia for its broad human rights abuses, including the Kingdom’s role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi government has sharply cracked down on protests and dissidents, has detained Americans, and the Saudi-led war in Yemen killed thousands of civilians.

On Thursday, Blinken said that he discussed human rights in his meetings in Saudi Arabia and stressed that “progress on human rights strengthens our relationship.” At the same time, Blinken said the US “strongly” welcomes and supports “historic steps to increase women’s participation in public life in the workforce, to expand interfaith tolerance, among other reforms in the country’s ambitious modernization agenda.”

The top US diplomat also sought to downplay differences between the Kingdom and the US on normalization with the Syrian government, to which the US is sharply opposed.

The top US diplomat claimed that “we all want to reach a solution in Syria that’s consistent with the key United Nations Security Council resolution 2254,” to expand humanitarian access, to ensure that ISIS “can’t re-emerge,” to create conditions to allow refugees to return, “to counter Captagon trafficking which is doing so much damage in the region,” and “to reduce Iranian influence.”

“What we’ve heard and what you just heard, again from the Foreign Minister, is the intent of our partners to use direct engagement with the Assad regime to further demand progress in these areas and other areas over the coming months,” Blinken said.

“Now, I have to admit we are skeptical of Assad’s willingness to take the necessary steps, but we’re aligned with our partners here on what those steps are, and on the ultimate objectives,” he said.

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