NEW YORK: Normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel is central in the US administration’s agenda in the Middle East, but former representatives have called on it to heed its allies.
Addressing the inaugural Middle East Global Summit in New York, attended by Arab News, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs said Washington is looking to increase integration.
US President Joe Biden “has been putting in a lot of effort to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, but we recognize that the road will be long and winding,” Barbara Leaf added.
Noting that the US believes all parties would benefit from increased integration that would be fostered by normalized relations, Leaf said when Biden took office, the Middle East was in a state of “extraordinary fragility” with chronic conflicts throughout.
Pointing to the preceding six years as having riven “a lot” of tensions, Leaf said in the last two years, the Biden administration has seen “rifts begin to heal.”
However, she was swift to shut down speculation about an imminent nuclear deal between the US and Iran.
“On the nuclear front, the fundamentals haven’t changed, and this chatter of a new deal, this isn’t the case. But Biden has reiterated that diplomacy is the path to securing something,” she said.
Asked whether normalized Saudi-Israeli relations would help the Middle East peace process and the end of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, Leaf was circumspect.
“Since 2014, we’ve seen a significant withering of relations between Israel and Palestine, leaving the two-state solution a much more diminished prospect, but it nonetheless remains a solution fundamental for peace, prosperity and security in the region,” she said.
“There has been a succession of Israeli governments over that time, but the Palestinians are also at fault too. We’ve sought to engage Egypt and Jordan though to bring stability.”
Given this seeming reliance on neighboring states to help broker peace, former US Ambassador to Egypt Jonathan Cohen told the summit: “It’s a sign of disrespect to not have an ambassador to an ally like Egypt. This is a major ally, and it hasn’t had a US ambassador for over a year.”
He added: “Since 1970, the US has invested $50 billion in Egypt’s security policy and a further $30 billion in its development policy, so this is a country where we have skin in the game, and yet we have only a charge d’affaires in Cairo.”
Since 2017, Cohen has been the only fulltime ambassador to Egypt, having been appointed by then-President Donald Trump in 2019 and serving until March last year.
But Cohen was preceded by charge d’affaires Thomas Goldberger, with four charge d’affaires since.