FM Ashkenazi: Normalization with UAE, Bahrain an ‘opportunity’ for Palestinians

Addressing Manama Dialogue conference, top diplomat urges direct peace talks without preconditions, says Abraham Accords weren’t at Ramallah’s ‘expense’

FM Ashkenazi addressing, via video conference, the IISS Manama Dialogue, December 6, 2020 (screen shot IISS)
FM Ashkenazi addressing, via video conference, the IISS Manama Dialogue, December 6, 2020 (screen shot IISS)

The landmark Abraham Accords that Israel has struck with two Gulf states are an opportunity for the Palestinians and have not come at their “expense,” Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said Sunday.

The UAE and Bahrain broke decades of Arab consensus with their move, condemned as a “stab in the back” by Palestinian leaders for abandoning the position that there would be no relations with the Jewish state until it made peace with the Palestinians.

But at the Manama Dialog, a regional security conference, Ashkenazi said that the diplomatic shift could help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, after talks between the two sides were frozen in 2014.

“The Abraham Accords do not come at the expense of the Palestinians. Quite the opposite, they are an opportunity that should not be missed,” he said in a virtual address.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi addresses via videoconference the Manama Dialogue security conference in the Bahrain capital on December 6, 2020. (Mazen Mahdi/AFP)

“I call on the Palestinians to change their minds and enter direct negotiation with us without preconditions. This is the only way to solve this conflict,” he said.

“We believe as Israel moves from annexation to normalization, there is a window to solve this conflict,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  agreeing to put annexation plans on hold in return for the normalization deal.

The United States, which brokered the Abraham Accords, has been intensively negotiating for more Arab nations to come on board, notably Saudi Arabia, the biggest Gulf power.

Saudis to sign up?

Mutual concern over Iran has gradually brought Israel and Gulf nations closer, and there were reports last month that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had held secret talks in Saudi Arabia, fueling speculation a normalization accord could be in the making.

Riyadh, however, denied that the meeting, reportedly between Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Neom, had occurred.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told AFP in Manama Saturday that the kingdom’s position remained resolute.

“We’ve been quite clear that in order for us to proceed with normalization we will need to see a settlement of the Palestinian dispute and the formation of a viable state of Palestine along the lines envisioned in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative,” he said.

“Without a settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis we are not going to see true peace and stability in the region.”

Asked whether that effectively ruled out the establishment of ties with Israel anytime soon, he said he was “optimistic that there is a path toward a resolution between the Palestinians and Israelis.”

In this December 20, 2017, file photo released by Al-Ekhbariya, Saudi King Salman, right, receives Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after he arrives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Al-Ekhbariya via AP, File)

However, at the conference, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi former intelligence chief who is said to be close to the top leadership, gave voice to the strong support that the Palestinian cause still has in the region, with a fiery presentation to Sunday’s Manama meeting.

He accused Israel of falsely depicting itself as a “small, existentially threatened country, surrounded by bloodthirsty killers who want to eradicate her from existence,” while in fact, he said, it was a might nuclear power.

The two-state solution was the only “fair solution” for Palestinian refugees, he said, accusing Israel of forcibly evicting Palestinians and destroying villages.

Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saudi speaking at the IISS Manama Dialogue, December 6, 2020 (screen shot IISS)

“You cannot treat an open wound with palliatives and painkillers. The Abraham Accords are not divine writ.”

Ashkenazi, in his comments right after the Saudi royal concluded his opening remarks, briefly referred to Al-Faisal’s speech. “At the beginning of my remarks I would like to express my regret on the comments of the Saudi representative. I don’t believe that they reflect the spirit and the changes taking place in the Middle East,” he said, speaking via video from Jerusalem.

He also later tweeted: “The false accusations of the Saudi representative at the Manama Conference do not reflect the facts or the spirit and changes the region is undergoing. I rejected his remarks and emphasized that the ‘blame game’ era is over. We are at the dawn of a new era. An era of peace.”

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