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Secretary of State Antony Blinken wants Saudi Arabia to normalize ties with Israel

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken leaves this evening for Saudi Arabia with a lot on his plate. The U.S. has been working with the Saudis to end the war in Yemen and mediate between two rival generals in Sudan. There is also concern about oil prices and a longer-term goal - getting Saudi Arabia to normalize ties with Israel. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Trump administration started the normalization deals between Israel and some Arab states. Secretary Blinken says he's working to deepen and expand those. And a big test will be whether Saudi Arabia will sign such a deal with Israel.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: We have no illusions that this can be done quickly or easily, but we remain committed to working toward that outcome, including on the trip I'm about to take this week to Jeddah and Riyadh for engagements with our Saudi and Gulf counterparts.

KELEMEN: He was speaking today to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

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BLINKEN: A more integrated, prosperous, stable region serves the interests of Israel. It serves the interests of our regional partners. It serves the United States.

KELEMEN: But some experts say Saudi Arabia is demanding too high a price by asking the U.S. for a civilian nuclear program and fewer restrictions on arms sales. Human rights activist Sarah Leah Whitson says the Biden administration has already backed off its promises to recalibrate relations with Saudi Arabia even after the Saudis prompted a spike in oil prices last year.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: This visit underlines what started to unfold early last year, which is a complete capitulation to Saudi Arabia for the questionable interests of securing cheap oil and securing normalization with Israel.

KELEMEN: She's with a nonprofit called DAWN, Democracy for the Arab World Now. It was founded by Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

WHITSON: And we still don't know where his body is, by the way. Nearly five years on, we're not able to give him a proper burial.

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken is expected to meet the Saudi Crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, as has President Biden, despite the fact that U.S. intelligence officials believe he was involved in the killing. Whitson says human rights have fallen off the U.S. agenda with Saudi Arabia.

WHITSON: If the rest of the world doesn't believe what the United States says about the importance of democracy and a rules-based order in human rights, it's because they see that the Biden administration doesn't believe those things anyway because if they did, their policies in the Middle East would look very differently.

KELEMEN: State Department officials say Secretary Blinken always brings up human rights. Deputy Assistant Secretary Daniel Benaim says Blinken is going to Saudi Arabia with what he calls a forward-looking agenda.

DANIEL BENAIM: There's just a tremendous amount of work that we're trying to do - Yemen, Sudan, bilateral work, commercial work, education work, close counterterrorism cooperation, defense and security, regional diplomacy.

KELEMEN: Blinken's trip comes just as Iran will reportedly reopen its embassy in Saudi Arabia, part of an agreement that China helped to broker. A U.S. spokesman says the U.S. wants to see direct diplomacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia and called an exchange of ambassadors a, quote, "unsurprising step." Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.