A potential normalisation deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia is being treated with scepticism by Palestinian negotiators, despite outwardly positive signals from Palestinian officials, several sources with knowledge of the talks have said.
Unofficial relations between Israel and the powerful Gulf petrostate have been growing for years. The possibility of a formal diplomatic agreement, however, has come to the fore since the two countries, along with the US, signalled 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 56-year-old occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Saudi officials have repeatedly described the Palestinian issue as “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 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.”
Riyadh is seeking a formal defence pact with the US and Washington’s assistance in developing a civilian nuclear programme in return for recognising Israel. For Israel, normalisation 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.
Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, said in a rare interview 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”.
Since 2020, in agreements brokered by Donald Trump’s administration, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have agreed to normalise 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.
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 normalisation 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 finalise any agreement. It is possible the kingdom would like to wait until the potential return to office of Trump – who supported Prince Mohammed in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Many other major obstacles remain. Any concessions to the Palestinians would be completely unpalatable for Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners, who have vowed to annex the entire West Bank. And moves to deepen US ties to Saudi Arabia and its unsavoury 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 normalisation between Israel and the kingdom would take at least a few years.
Nevertheless, incremental steps are underway. 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. Relations between Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and decision makers in Riyadh had been frosty over Qatari support for the Palestinian factions.
During a two-day visit to the Palestinian administrative centre, Ramallah, on Tuesday, 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 Organisation. Before leaving, Katz told reporters that tourism was a “bridge between nations”.