Saudi pauses talks on normalisation with Israel: source

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman
Deutsche Welle

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

Hamas launched a large-scale attack on Israel on 7 October 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 news came as US secretary of state Antony Blinken was about to meet with his Saudi counterpart on Saturday, the latest stop on a six-nation tour of the region.

The Gulf kingdom, home to the holiest sites in Islam, 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.

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.

Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan 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.

"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."