Israel normalization: Saudi envoy ‘cancels Al-Aqsa visit’ after backlash over possible deal

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  September 27, 2023

Postponement follows criticism by some Palestinians who view the visit as validating the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem.

Saudi Arabia’s non-resident ambassador to Palestine postponed a planned visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque on Wednesday, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The cancellation came amid criticism made by some Palestinians on social media, who viewed the visit as validating the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem.

Some called for the Saudi delegation to be prevented from entering the mosque.

Quoting a Palestinian source in Ramallah, Haaretz reported that Nayef al-Sudairi, the Saudi ambassador, postponed the visit after hearing “about the sensitivity of the matter” and understanding the “criticism and implications” surrounding it. 

The Israeli daily newspaper added that the diplomat planned to visit the mosque at a later date. 

The Wednesday visit was not officially announced and was not coordinated with the Islamic Waqf, a joint Jordanian-Palestinian Islamic trust, Haaretz added.

The Waqf administers the affairs of Al-Aqsa Mosque and often handles visits by official delegations. 

Al-Sudairi, who is also Riyadh’s ambassador to Jordan, arrived in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday to meet with Palestinian officials.

During his visit, the first by a Saudi official to the West Bank since the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established, Al-Sudairi met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki and top PLO official Hussein al-Sheikh.

Al-Sudairi said the kingdom was “working towards establishing a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital”.

His trip comes against the backdrop of a warming of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

Deals to establish formal ties between Arab states and Israel are unpopular among Palestinians and supporters of the Palestinian cause.

They are viewed as rewarding Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, which UN experts and rights groups say amounts to apartheid. 

Al-Sudairi’s entry to the West Bank and the now-cancelled visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque would not be possible without the consent of Israeli authorities.

Getting such approvals is seen by many Palestinians as a tacit acceptance of Israeli control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which are both under illegal Israeli occupation.

In 2019, self-styled Saudi Arabian blogger Mohammed Saud was chased down and driven out of Al-Aqsa Mosque by Palestinians who called him “trash”, “cheap” and “Zionist”, and spat in his face.

Saud, a vocal admirer of Israel, was on a trip to occupied East Jerusalem officially sponsored by Israel’s foreign ministry.

‘Disturbing’ Bin Salman interview 

Al-Sudairi’s Palestine trip came days after Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spoke at length about Saudi negotiations with Israel in a wide-ranging interview with Fox News.

But during the discussion there was no mention of Palestinian statehood, civil and human rights, or any other specifics, raising concern for some Palestinians.

“For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part,” the crown prince said. “We hope that it will reach a place, that it will ease the life of the Palestinians and get Israel back as a player of the Middle East.”

Pressed on what kinds of things he wanted to see for Palestinians, he was tight-lipped.

“That’s part of the negotiation,” he responded. “I want to see really a good life for the Palestinians,” he added vaguely, without elaborating.

For some Palestinian analysts, the comments were notable for what was omitted. 

“Bin Salman’s interview with Fox News [was] very disturbing,” Hani al-Masri, director general of Masarat, the Palestinian Centre for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, told Middle East Eye.

“He did not say a word of anything about the peace initiative, ending the occupation, the Palestinian state, the right to self-determination, and the right of return for refugees.

“This means that he does not want to commit himself to anything, and this reflects a great willingness for excessive flexibility and illegal bargaining.”

Saudi Arabia never recognized Israel and since 2002 has conditioned a normalization deal on Israel ending its occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.