Israeli and Saudi officials reportedly hold series of secret meetings in Egypt

PA official quoted saying Jerusalem-Riyadh ties are undermining the PA, with Saudis no longer viewing Israel as ‘greatest enemy in region’

In this photo from March 4, 2018, provided by Egypt's state news agency, MENA, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, right, meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Cairo, Egypt. (Mohammed Samaha/MENA via AP)
In this photo from March 4, 2018, provided by Egypt's state news agency, MENA, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, right, meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Cairo, Egypt. (Mohammed Samaha/MENA via AP)

Top Israeli and Saudi Arabian officials reportedly held a series of secret meetings in Cairo last week, ahead of US President Donald Trump’s expected unveiling of his long-awaited Middle East peace plan.

According to a report on Israel’s Channel 10 news, a Palestinian Authority official told an Arabic news site on Friday that Egyptian officials were mediating talks that he described as “significant development” in the slowly warming ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh, a trend that he said was undermining the authority of the Ramallah-based Palestinian government.

“The warm relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia are damaging the Palestinian Authority,” the official was quoted saying. “It seems that Israel is no longer the greatest enemy in the region anymore.”

(This article originally stated erroneously that the report on the Israeli-Saudi talks appeared in the UAE-based Khaleej Times, which on Sunday denied carrying any such report. In fact, the story appeared on the Qatar al-Khaleej online website.)

In one of the first visible signs of Israel-Saudi ties, this week, the Saudis granted Air India permission to fly through Saudi airspace to Israel, a first in 70 years.

According to the PA official, the talks — held at a luxury hotel, with Egyptian officials present — also dealt with the economic interests of Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, particularly in the Red Sea region.

The US administration is expected to announce the main points of its peace plan in the coming weeks, the Egyptian newspaper said. Administration officials have said the plan is close to being finished, but have also refused to give a timeline for when it might be published.

Earlier on Friday, a report in the privately owned Egyptian newspaper Al Shorouk said several unnamed Arab countries were advising PA President Mahmoud Abbas to accept whatever plan the Trump administration put forth, or risk “regretting” it later.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas listens while US President Donald Trump makes a statement for the press before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2017, in New York. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

Abbas has denounced the purported plan as the “slap of the century” — a reference to the phrase “deal of the century” used by Trump himself to describe his peace initiative. Furious over the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there, Ramallah has blackballed negotiators Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, and has pushed for a multilateral peace effort that sidelines Washington.

The Americans, according to the Egyptian report, have notified some Arab capitals that Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is “part of an American effort to persuade Israel, especially the hardliners, to agree to possible concessions to the Palestinians.”

Trump has repeatedly said Israel will have to “pay a price” for the recognition of Jerusalem, though he has not detailed what concessions are expected. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters after meeting Trump this week that the issue had never come up between them.

President Donald Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, March 5, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

At least one Arab country made it clear to the Trump administration that Arab states would reject any peace plan that does not recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, the report said.

A senior Hamas official told the newspaper the Egyptians have assured the terror group that Cairo would not accept any plan that does not call for the establishment of a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, “on the 1967 borders.”

The Egyptians also affirmed their “commitment to the right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their former homes inside Israel, according to the Hamas official.

Last month, a senior Hamas delegation headed by Ismail Haniyeh spent three weeks in Cairo, where its members held talks with Egyptian government officials on a number of issues, including the floundering reconciliation agreement with Abbas’s Fatah movement and ways of enhancing security measures along the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

The Hamas official quoted the Egyptians as saying that Cairo was strongly opposed to the idea of “settling Palestinians in Sinai.”

The Egyptian stance came in response to unconfirmed reports in some Arab media outlets that claimed that Trump’s peace plan includes transferring parts of Sinai to the future Palestinian state.

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