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Saudi Arabia Puts Israel Deal on Hold Amid Escalating Conflict, Engages With Iran, Sources Say

Riyadh, October 13, 2023: Saudi Arabia has made a significant shift in its foreign policy stance, putting on hold U.S.-backed plans to normalize relations with Israel, according to two reliable sources. This abrupt change reflects a rapid re-evaluation of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy priorities as violence escalates between Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian group.

This recent conflict has also prompted Saudi Arabia to engage in dialogue with Iran. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took a significant step by holding a phone call with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi as Saudi Arabia seeks to prevent a broader surge of violence in the region.

The two sources informed Reuters that the U.S.-backed talks to normalize relations with Israel will experience a delay. These talks were crucial for Saudi Arabia, as they were a critical step toward securing a U.S. defense pact.

Until October 7, 2023, when Iran-backed Hamas initiated an attack on Israel, Saudi and Israeli leaders had been expressing their commitment to an evolving deal that had the potential to reshape the Middle East. Saudi Arabia had previously indicated that it would not let its pursuit of a U.S. defense pact be derailed, even if Israel did not offer substantial concessions to the Palestinians in their quest for statehood.

However, sidelining the Palestinian cause risked angering Arab nations throughout the region. Arab media outlets have broadcast images of Palestinians killed in Israeli retaliatory airstrikes.

Hamas fighters killed over 1,300 Israelis in their October 7, 2023, attack, and by Friday, more than 1,500 Palestinians had been killed in Israel's ongoing strikes on Gaza in response.

The first source familiar with Riyadh's thinking stated that talks cannot continue now and that prioritizing Israeli concessions to the Palestinians will be crucial when discussions resume. This indicates that Saudi Arabia has not entirely abandoned normalizing relations with Israel.

Requests for comments on this matter from the Saudi government have yet to be answered.

The reconsideration of Saudi Arabia's stance underscores the challenges the United States faces in promoting Israel's integration in a region where the Palestinian issue remains a primary concern among Arab nations.

Normalization was already considered taboo (in the Arab world), and this war only amplifies that, said Saudi analyst Aziz Alghashian.

The U.S. is eager to build on the Abraham Accords, which saw Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, normalize their relations with Israel. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated this week that the normalization effort was not on hold, but the current focus is on more immediate challenges.

The first source, familiar with Saudi thinking, mentioned that the U.S. had urged Riyadh to condemn the Hamas attack this week. However, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan resisted these demands. A U.S. source with knowledge of the matter confirmed this.

This regional conflict has also led to the Saudi Crown Prince and Iran's President engaging in their first conversation since a Chinese-brokered initiative encouraged the two Gulf rivals to re-establish diplomatic ties in April.

A Saudi statement confirmed that the Crown Prince informed President Raisi that the kingdom is exerting maximum effort to engage with all international and regional parties to halt the ongoing escalation, underscoring Saudi Arabia's commitment to containing the crisis.

A senior Iranian official told Reuters that the call, initiated by Raisi to the Crown Prince, aimed to support Palestine and prevent the spread of war in the region. The official described the call as positive and promising.

A second Iranian official revealed that the call lasted 45 minutes and had the approval of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Saudi Arabia actively seeks to reduce tensions in various parts of the Middle East, including efforts to end the conflict in Yemen, where Riyadh has led a coalition against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.

In response to the call between Raisi and the Crown Prince, a senior U.S. State Department official stated that Washington maintains "constant contact with Saudi leaders." U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has had several discussions with his Saudi counterpart.

The official added that Washington is urging partners with communication channels to Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran to encourage Hamas to cease its attacks, release hostages, prevent Hezbollah's involvement, and keep Iran out of the conflict.

The first source familiar with Saudi thinking indicated that Gulf states, including those with Israeli relations, are concerned that Iran could be drawn into a conflict that would impact them.

Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, highlighted the divergence in Saudi and Iranian visions for the region in the past week.

 The Saudis are still convinced that the region, and Saudi Arabia itself, needs to shift toward regional cooperation and economic development. Iran seems to think the priority is to take the fight to the Israelis first, he remarked.

Edited by: Sri Soudamini Konka


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