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Blinken says US-Saudi pacts could be 'weeks away' from completion
Blinken says US-Saudi pacts could be 'weeks away' from completion
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Blinken says US-Saudi pacts could be 'weeks away' from completion
by DZRH News23 May 2024
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on President Biden's proposed budget request for the Department of State, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 21, 2024. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Humeyra Pamuk, Simon Lewis and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday said the United States and Saudi Arabia were very close to concluding a set of agreements on nuclear energy, security and defense cooperation, which are part of a wider normalisation deal with Riyadh and Israel.

Speaking at a hearing in the House of Representatives, Blinken said the finalizing of the agreements "could be weeks away" but cautioned that for the wider normalisation to proceed, there must be calm in Gaza and the formulation of a pathway for Palestinian statehood.

"Those agreements are in principle very close to being able to be concluded. Now of course we will come to Congress with them when they're ready to be reviewed, but we're - could be really weeks away from being able to conclude them," Blinken told the House Appropriations Committee.

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"However, in order for normalization to proceed, Saudi Arabia has made very clear that even with the agreements between us completed, they have to have two things: they have to have calm in Gaza and they have to have a credible pathway to a Palestinian state," Blinken added.

Sources told Reuters earlier this month that a working draft has been crafted that lays out principles and proposals aimed at putting back on track the U.S.-led effort to reshape the volatile region that was derailed by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza.

However the bigger deal still remains elusive largely due to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's repeated rejection of any plans for the creation of a Palestinian state.

As Washington works on restoring calm in Gaza through a hostage deal that would achieve a ceasefire, Blinken said, a moment of choice was approaching for Israel.

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"Until now this has been a hypothetical or theoretical question for Israel. Assuming we complete the agreements between the United States and Saudi Arabia, that hypothetical or theoretical question becomes a real question that they will have to answer one way or another," Blinken said.

Blinken sidestepped a question on whether any U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear pact would commit Riyadh to the "gold standard" of foregoing uranium enrichment or reprocessing spent fuel, both processes that can yield fissile material for bombs.

Blinken said Washington wanted any civil nuclear deal to include the foreign nation agreeing to the "gold standard" as well as "Additional Protocol" that gives the U.N. nuclear agency more verification tools but he did not commit that a Saudi deal would include either.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s aides originally envisioned, in three-way negotiations before the Oct. 7 attack, for Saudis to gain U.S. security commitments and U.S. nuclear cooperation in exchange for normalizing ties with Israel.

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Now the administration is negotiating with Riyadh on a separate track and seeking to finalize the offer of a "grand bargain," leaving Netanyahu to decide whether to join.

U.S. officials are hoping Netanyahu will not want to forego the historic opportunity to open relations with Saudi Arabia, guardian of Islam’s holiest sites. But they say they are mindful of the domestic political pressures he is under, including keeping Israel’s most right-wing government ever from collapsing.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Simon Lewis and Patricia Zengerle; additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Deepa Babington)

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