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Saudi pauses talks on normalisation with Israel

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has suspended talks on potentially normalising ties with Israel, a source told AFP on Saturday (Oct 14), amid the war raging between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Hamas launched a large-scale attack on Israel on October 7 which killed 1,300 people, sparking a retaliatory bombing campaign that has killed at least 2,215 in the Gaza Strip ahead of a potential Israeli ground invasion of the territory.

“Saudi Arabia has decided to pause discussion on possible normalisation and has informed US officials,” a source familiar with the discussions told AFP.

The source spoke the same day US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in Riyadh with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the latest stop on a six-nation tour of the region.

After that meeting, the Saudi foreign ministry called for “an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and its surroundings” and the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid.

The Gulf kingdom, home to Islam’s holiest sites, has never recognised Israel and did not join the 2020 US-brokered Abraham Accords that saw its Gulf neighbours Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates as well as Morocco establish formal ties with Israel.

US President Joe Biden’s administration had been pushing hard in recent months for Saudi Arabia to take the same step.

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“NO WAY” TO NORMALISE

Under de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, son of the ageing King Salman, Riyadh had laid out conditions for normalisation, including security guarantees from Washington and help developing a civilian nuclear programme.

In an interview with Fox News last month, Prince Mohammed said “every day we get closer” to a deal, though he also insisted the Palestinian issue was “very important” for 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”.

“DISTURBING SITUATION”

In the week since Hamas launched its attack on Israel, Riyadh has voiced increasing disquiet about the fate of Palestinians in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where Israel has launched thousands of strikes and ordered the evacuation of the territory’s north, prompting thousands to flee.

On Friday, Saudi Arabia denounced the displacement of Palestinians within Gaza and attacks on “defenceless civilians”, its strongest language criticising Israel since the war broke out.

Prince Faisal similarly decried civilian casualties after meeting with Blinken on Saturday.

“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.

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.

In recent days, Riyadh has publicised its diplomatic outreach “to stop the ongoing escalation”, contacting regional leaders across and beyond the region.

On Thursday, Saudi state media reported that Prince Mohammed had discussed “the current military situation in Gaza and its environs” with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

It was the first call between the two men since their countries announced a surprise China-brokered rapprochement in March after seven years of severed ties.

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