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US antisemitism envoy to visit Saudi Arabia in first trip abroad

Deborah Lipstadt, who is also scheduled to visit Israel and the UAE, will promote normalisation between Arab states and Israel, State Department says
Deborah Lipstadt speaks at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on 8 February 2022 (Reuters)

The US special envoy to combat anti-Semitism will head to the Middle East later this week where she will promote normalisation between Israel and Arab countries, the State Department has said.

"[Deborah] Lipstadt intends to build on the profoundly important Abraham Accords to advance religious tolerance, improve relations in the region, and counter misunderstanding and distrust," a statement released on Thursday said.

The so-called "Abraham Accords" are the normalisation agreements signed in 2020 between Israel and several Arab countries, including the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

The agreements, which were brokered the administration of former US President Donald Trump, shattered a longstanding Arab consensus that there should be no normalisation with Israel until it reaches a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians.

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Speaking to reporters earlier on Thursday, Lipstadt called Saudi Arabia a "very important country" that had "shown a willingness and openness to hosting me."

Lipstadt said she planned to meet with government ministers and civil society leaders while in the kingdom, although she did not share details of those she would meet.

She noted that while Saudi Arabia had not yet normalised ties with Israel, it had created an atmosphere where she can discuss "normalising the vision of the Jews and understanding of Jewish history for their population, particularly their younger population."

Her visit comes three weeks before US President Joe Biden is slated to visit the Middle East. During a four-day trip from 13 to 16 July, Biden is planning to visit Israel, the occupied West Bank and Saudi Arabia. The visit will culminate with a major gathering of regional leaders in Jeddah, the Saudi port city, where Biden is expected to engage in some capacity with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Last month US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the kingdom was "a partner" in building on the "Abraham Accords", which was crafted by the administration of former US President Donald Trump.

Saudi officials have repeatedly said the kingdom remains committed to the Arab Peace Initiative, which conditions recognising Israel on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, but Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, secretly met with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the kingdom in 2020, according to several Israeli media reports at the time.

'You will see some interesting things'

On Wednesday, Barbara Leaf, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, told lawmakers that more Arab countries were looking to make gestures to improve relations with Israel during Biden's visit.

"We are working in the space that is not in the public domain with a couple of other countries," Leaf said at the Congressional hearing without naming the countries.

"I think you will see some interesting things around the time of the president's visit," Leaf added. Asked to elaborate, she said: "I really wouldn't want to step on the president's toes."

Leaf's comments offer the most senior public acknowledgement from a US official that the trip will coincide with concrete steps to expand on normalisation.

On Thursday, Axios reported that the White House has been working on a "road map for normalisation" between Israel and Saudi Arabia ahead of Biden's visit.

According to Axios, the Biden administration thinks that any road map for normalisation will take time and will be a long-term process.