In the midst of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, Saudi Arabia has postponed talks on potentially normalizing relations with Israel, a source told AFP on Saturday.
On October 7, Hamas launched a large-scale attack on Israel, killing 1,300 people, provoking a retaliatory bombing campaign that has killed at least 2,215 people in the Gaza Strip ahead of a likely Israeli ground invasion.
“Saudi Arabia has decided to pause discussion on possible normalisation and has informed US officials,” a source familiar with the discussions told AFP.
The announcement came as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepared to meet with his Saudi counterpart on Saturday, the latest leg in a six-country trip of the region.
The Gulf country, which is home to Islam’s holiest sites, has never recognized Israel and has refused to sign the 2020 Abraham Accords, which saw its Gulf neighbors Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Morocco, establish formal ties with Israel.
In recent months, US President Joe Biden’s administration has pushed hard for Saudi Arabia to follow suit.
Riyadh had laid out requirements for normalisation under de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, son of the ailing King Salman, including security guarantees from Washington and assistance in launching a civilian nuclear program.
In an interview with Fox News last month, Prince Mohammed stated that “every day we get closer” to a deal, but added that the Palestinian issue was “very important” to Riyadh.
“We need to solve that part. We need to ease the life of the Palestinians,” he said.
The deal was seen as a long shot by many analysts even before the war began.
“Normalisation between the Kingdom and Israel is an American initiative and project that the Kingdom has welcomed in case the US could deliver an agreement addressing the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians — one that the Palestinians would accept,” said Saudi analyst Hesham Alghannam.
“In reality, Israel was not really ready to reach an agreement with the Palestinians that would give them the minimum of their needs.”
Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director of the International Crisis Group, said there was “no way that any Arab country can seriously engage with Israel about normalising relations when their publics see what is happening in Gaza”.
Riyadh has expressed growing concern about the plight of Palestinians in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where Israel has launched thousands of attacks and ordered the evacuation of the territory’s north, causing thousands to escape.
Saudi Arabia condemned the relocation of Palestinians within Gaza and attacks on “defenseless civilians” on Friday, using its harshest words against Israel since the conflict began.
After meeting with Blinken on Saturday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan also condemned civilian casualties.
“It’s a disturbing situation. It’s a very difficult situation. And, you know, the primary sufferer of this situation are civilians and civilian populations on both sides are being affected,” he said.
“The priority now needs to be to stop further civilian suffering, and here we need to find a way to quickly de-escalate the situation to quickly bring back peace -— at least stopping the guns —- and then working towards addressing also the humanitarian challenges.”
Blinken, for his part, highlighted efforts to establish “safe areas” in Gaza as well as “a corridor so that humanitarian assistance can reach people who need it.”
“None of us want to see suffering by civilians on any side, whether it’s in Israel, whether it’s in Gaza, whether it’s anywhere else, and we’re working together to do our best to protect them,” he said.
Riyadh has recently made public its diplomatic effort “to stop the ongoing escalation,” contacting regional leaders across the Gulf and beyond.
According to Saudi official media, Prince Mohammed discussed “the current military situation in Gaza and its environs” with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on Thursday.
It was their first phone chat since their countries announced an unexpected reunion in March, mediated by China, following seven years of estrangement.