Barkat talks peace with Saudi counterpart in UAE: ‘We can make history together’

On sidelines of World Trade Organization meeting in Abu Dhabi, ministers shake hands, exchange phone numbers amid talk of potential landmark regional deal that includes normalization

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Economy Minister Nir Barkat (left) meets with Saudi Commerce Minister Majid bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi at the WTO conference in Abu Dhabi, February 26, 2024. (Courtesy Economy Ministry)
Economy Minister Nir Barkat (left) meets with Saudi Commerce Minister Majid bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi at the WTO conference in Abu Dhabi, February 26, 2024. (Courtesy Economy Ministry)

Economy Minister Nir Barkat told Saudi Arabia’s Commerce Minister Majid bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi on Monday that the two countries can “make history” together during the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference in Abu Dhabi.

The two ministers were seen shaking hands and chatting amicably on the sidelines of the conference. They also exchanged business cards.

“Israel is interested in peace with countries that seek peace, and we can make history together,” Barkat told his counterpart, according to a statement from the Economy Ministry.

Following a viral video of their interaction, Saudi Arabia denied the ministers held a formal meeting. Citing an official Saudi source, the kingdom’s state news agency SPA reported that Qasabi was standing alongside his Nigerian counterpart when “an unknown individual approached the minister to offer greetings.”

He “later identified himself as the minister of economy in the Israeli occupation government,” SPA said, quoting the official Saudi source.

The source also stressed the kingdom’s “steadfast stance on the Palestinian cause and its support for the resilience of the Palestinian people against Israeli aggression,” according to SPA.

Majid bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi, Saudi Arabia’s minister of commerce, attends a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Kuwait City on November 21, 2018. (Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP)

Trade ministers from 160 countries were in Abu Dhabi for the four-day WTO meeting, which is aiming to set new global commerce rules despite pessimism about the likelihood of any major breakthroughs amid increasing economic divisions that reflect emerging rival global political blocs.

The US Biden administration has been working to secure a landmark deal that will see a normalization in ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The kingdom and other Arab countries are seeking steps toward the creation of a Palestinian state as part of the potential agreement.

In 2020, Israel signed normalization deals with Bahrain, Morocco, and the UAE, the host of the WTO conference.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left; United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan; and Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa; at the White House, Sept. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

To create some wiggle room in talks about recognizing Israel and to get the US-brokered pact back on track, Saudi officials have told their American counterparts that Riyadh would not insist Israel take concrete steps to create a Palestinian state and would instead accept a political commitment to a two-state solution, two senior regional sources told Reuters earlier this month.

Riyadh is increasingly eager to shore up its security and ward off threats from rival Iran so the kingdom can forge ahead with an ambitious plan to transform its economy and attract massive foreign investment.

In addition to binding security guarantees from the US in exchange for normalization with Israel, Riyadh is also seeking access to top-notch American military equipment and Washington’s support for a civilian nuclear program, according to US and Arab officials. Analysts say Saudi Arabia is determined to secure the deal before the American presidential election in November because in the event that US President Joe Biden is not re-elected, Democrats in Congress will be less likely to ratify a deal inked by a Republican White House.

Last month, two senior US officials and a senior Arab diplomat told The Times of Israel that while the broader interests of the countries involved have not changed since the October 7 attack, the price of the “significant Palestinian component” of the deal had in fact gone up.

Whereas Israel was being asked before the war to take limited steps to keep a two-state solution alive, the senior officials said it will now need to commit to establishing an irreversible pathway toward an eventual Palestinian state while also accepting the return of the Palestinian Authority to governing the Gaza Strip, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has all but rejected in recent months.

Some Israeli ministers argue that peace with Saudi Arabia is possible without a Palestinian state.

Jacob Magid and agencies contributed to this report. 

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