Palestinian negotiators skeptical over potential Israel-Saudi deal

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  September 27, 2023

Despite outward positivity, sources say normalization deal unlikely to happen any time soon.

A potential normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia is being treated with skepticism by Palestinian negotiators, despite outwardly positive signals from Palestinian officials, several sources with knowledge of the talks have said.

Unofficial relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia have been growing for years, and the possibility of a formal diplomatic agreement has come to the fore after the two countries, along with the US, signaled progress on the matter during the UN general assembly in New York last week.

Palestinians are wary that any such deal would not result in meaningful concessions towards peace or ending the 57-year-old occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Saudi officials have repeatedly said the Palestinian issue is “very important”.

A Palestinian diplomatic source who asked not to be named as they were not authorised to talk to the media said: “I don’t see this as happening any time soon. The fact that the Saudis are talking about the Palestinian file as easier to deal with than the nuclear stuff shows just how much work needs to be done.”

Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, said in a rare interview with Fox News on the sidelines of the general assembly that “every day we get closer” to a deal with Israel. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, followed that up by telling the UN that “we are at the cusp” of “an historic peace”.

Riyadh is seeking a formal defence pact with the US and Washington’s assistance in developing a civilian nuclear program in return for recognizing Israel. For Israel, normalization with the Saudi kingdom – the anchor of Sunni Islam and home to the religion’s two holiest sites – would in theory pave the way for the acceptance of the Jewish state across the Muslim world.

Since 2020, in agreements brokered by Donald Trump’s administrationthe UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have agreed to normalize relations with Israel, in part over shared worries about Iran. Palestinian officials say the Abraham Accords, as they are known, deeply undermine the prospect of peace and a two-state solution.

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To date, Saudi Arabia has stuck by the Arab Peace Initiative, a two-decade-old Arab League proposal pledging no diplomatic recognition of Israel without a just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Unlike the first rounds of the Abraham accords talks, in which there was no Palestinian involvement, the Palestinian Authority has said that this time it is willing to play an active part in the negotiations. One source with knowledge of the process suggested that the Palestinians may have no choice in the matter.

“The Saudis cut a lot of funding to the Palestinians in 2021 and now they are using that money as a bargaining tool. They’re saying “if you want us to restore funding, you’ll have to go along with us, you can’t say anything going against us and the normalization process’,” the source said on condition of anonymity so they could speak freely.

Despite eager statements from Israeli officials estimating that relations could be established by the first quarter of 2024, and Joe Biden’s desire for a major foreign policy achievement before next year’s US election, Riyadh does not appear to be in a rush to finalize any agreement, and major obstacles remain.

Any concessions to the Palestinians would be completely unpalatable for far-right elements of Netanyahu’s coalition government, which have vowed to annex the entire West Bank. And any moves to deepen US ties to Saudi Arabia and its human rights record are likely to be a hard sell for Biden in the US Congress and Senate.

According to two sources with knowledge of the trip, the CIA director, William Burns, said in meetings in the Jordanian capital, Amman, last month that the agency’s estimation was that normalization between Israel and the kingdom would take at least a few years.

Nevertheless, incremental steps are being taken. In August, Saudi Arabia named its first non-resident ambassador to the occupied Palestinian territories, Nayef al-Sudairi, and the two sides have since exchanged delegations after a 10-year hiatus.

During a two-day visit to the Palestinian administrative capital, Ramallah, on Tuesday, Al-Sudairi reiterated that the kingdom was “working to establish a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital”, without elaborating.

On Wednesday, Israel’s tourism minister, Haim Katz, became the first senior Israeli official to make a public visit to Saudi Arabia, for a conference hosted by the UN’s World Tourism Organization. Before leaving, Katz told reporters that tourism was a “bridge between nations”.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian