Why has Saudi Arabia established a mission to Palestine in Jerusalem?

Why has Saudi Arabia established a mission to Palestine in Jerusalem?

 Why has Saudi Arabia established a mission to Palestine in Jerusalem?

Saudi mission to Palestine and Israel’s rejection

Israel has declined the proposal for establishing a diplomatic facility in Jerusalem for Saudi Arabia’s envoy to the Palestinian Authority (PA). The envoy, Nayef al-Sudairi, who recently presented his credentials to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s diplomatic adviser Majdi al-Khalidi, has been named the non-resident envoy to Palestine and consul general in Jerusalem. This announcement occurred at the Palestinian embassy in Amman, with Nayef al-Sudairi serving as the current ambassador to Jordan for Saudi Arabia.

In response, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen stated on Tel Aviv radio station 103 FM that while the new ambassador, Nayef al-Sudairi, could engage with representatives of the PA, he would not have a permanent presence. Cohen emphasized that there would be no official stationed in Jerusalem.

Palestinian Ambassador to Riyadh, Bassam al-Agha, expressed his interpretation of the appointment, asserting that it reflected the continuation of Saudi Arabia’s existing stance. Al-Agha further perceived this move as a “rejection” of the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017.

Al-Sudairi presented his credentials at the Palestinian mission in Amman, indicating that the Jordanian capital would serve as his operational center. The ongoing challenges in achieving a diplomatic solution include Israeli settlements on occupied land, internal conflicts between the Western-backed Palestinian authority in the West Bank and the governing Hamas movement in Gaza, and the dispute over Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital, which is not widely accepted internationally.

Palestinian concerns

Saudi Arabia’s appointment of its first ambassador to “Palestine” has been greeted with approval by Palestinians. However, there is a sense of caution and concern that this move might be part of a broader plan, potentially influenced by the United States, aimed at normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

A senior Palestinian official in Ramallah acknowledged the positive step but also highlighted the potential for a connection between the Saudi decision and ongoing US efforts to encourage Saudi-Israeli normalization. While welcoming the move, the official expressed hopes that the decision was made to enhance ties with the Palestinians rather than as a precursor to normalization with Israel. The official further expressed skepticism about the credibility of reports suggesting an imminent Saudi-Israeli agreement.

Hassan Asfour, a former Palestinian negotiator and current editor of the Palestinian Amad news website, shared similar sentiments. He believed that the Saudi action was likely intertwined with the normalization issue. Asfour suggested that the Palestinian leadership should engage with the Saudi government regarding the prospect of Israeli-Saudi normalization and recommended establishing a committee comprising Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to address regional developments in connection with the Palestinian matter.

Bassam al-Agha, the Palestinian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, saw the Saudi decision as a message to the world that the Kingdom recognizes Palestine as a state with Jerusalem as its capital. Al-Agha emphasized that the move signifies Saudi Arabia’s intent to strengthen relations with the Palestinian leadership and people. While there’s a sense of welcome, there’s also an awareness of potential complexities and wider diplomatic dynamics at play.

Saudi normalization with Israel?

Although there is no concrete proof of this, many believe the latest move by Saudi Arabia is part of a plan to normalize ties with Israel. A concession to Saudi Arabia as part of the deal in other words.

In recent weeks, the Biden administration has increased the frequency of high-level officials’ visits to Riyadh and Tel Aviv to meet with Prince Mohammed and Mr. Netanyahu. After Secretary of State Blinken’s visit, Brett McGurk, the top White House official handling Middle East policy, led a delegation on a discreet trip to continue negotiations. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also traveled to Saudi Arabia in May.

Talks between the Saudis and Israel have not progressed much since the commencement of US efforts to strike a deal, as the incentives on both sides remain weak at this moment, as Saudi foreign policy objectives have shifted to a less US-oriented outlook, while Israel is more willing to establish a deal but growing increasingly frustrated.

Presently, the Biden administration is pursuing a dual-track strategy in the Middle East, aiming to normalize relations between its key allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, while simultaneously seeking an informal agreement with Iran concerning its nuclear program. Should these efforts succeed, it would represent a significant accomplishment in terms of foreign policy and could provide a boost to President Biden’s reelection campaign next year.

Reports suggest that Saudi Arabia has outlined specific demands as part of the process to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. These demands include seeking a defense treaty with the United States, access to advanced American weaponry, American approval for a civil nuclear program with potential uranium enrichment, and Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. The latter demands entail commitments from Israel to refrain from actions that might undermine the two-state solution, such as annexations, new settlements, or expansion in certain areas.

The significance of such a deal would be comparable to Egypt’s historic peace treaty with Israel in the 1970s. However, its realization hinges on Saudi Arabia formalizing ties with Israel before Israel ceases the occupation of Palestinian territories, which raises concerns among Palestinian leaders. Palestinian Authority must ensure that any normalization with Israel occurs only after the end of the occupation.

This potential multilateral agreement also requires Saudi Arabia to halt its involvement in the Yemen conflict, increase assistance to the Palestinians, and reduce ties with China. In return, the Palestinians are expected to adopt more moderate stances for future negotiations with Israel.

However, there are doubts about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s willingness to engage in such a deal due to opposition from factions in his ruling coalition. There is speculation about the formation of a new coalition government involving Benny Gantz’s national unity party and Netanyahu’s Likud, which could potentially remove far-right and ultra-religious parties from power.

If Saudi Arabia agrees to formal ties with Israel, it could mark a significant milestone, and some may even characterize it as the “end of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

It remains unlikely that the deal goes through, but the latest appointment of the envoy to Jerusalem and its timing does certainly raise some questions.

Hazem Zahab

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