Israeli diplomat reportedly present for speech on Shabbat

In UN speech, Saudi FM urges Palestinian state, doesn’t mention normalization, Israel

Bin Farhan says Mideast security requires ‘just, comprehensive solution to Palestinian issue’ and ‘independent state’ on 1967 borders; denounces ‘unilateral steps’; meets Iran’s FM

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City on September 23, 2023. (Leonardo Munoz / AFP)
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City on September 23, 2023. (Leonardo Munoz / AFP)

The Saudi foreign minister addressed the UN General Assembly on Saturday in a speech that warned that regional security in the Middle East hinged on a “just, comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue” and appeared to criticize Israel for “unilateral measures that are a flagrant violation of international law” while making no mention of the country.

“Security in the Middle East region requires the acceleration of…a just, comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue; the solution must be based on resolutions in the international arena and must bring about a peace that allows [the] Palestinian people to have an independent state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan.

He added that Saudi Arabia also “rejects and condemns all the unilateral steps that constitute a flagrant violation of international law and which contribute to the collapse of regional and international peace efforts and are hindering the path of diplomatic solutions,” an apparent reference to Israeli approval of West Bank settlement construction and the legalization of some outposts in recent months.

The kingdom, he said, “strives to support all efforts to bolster security and stability and to focus on inclusive development to create a favorable space for dialogue, to reduce tension, and to encourage the region’s states to avoid any escalation, and to exchange benefits and interests to meet the aspirations of the region’s people.”

Israel reportedly sent a diplomatic representative to the General Assembly hall for the address, even though the speech was during Shabbat.

Bin Farhan’s 16-minute address, in which he didn’t mention Israel directly nor did he bring up the efforts toward a possible normalization deal, comes amid increased talk of a potential historic peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, with Riyadh said to demand Israeli concessions to Palestinians that nevertheless fall short of giving them an independent state. Riyadh is also demanding US concessions such as a new defense pact, significant arms deals, and cooperation on setting up a civilian nuclear program on Saudi soil.

The Saudi minister’s remarks Saturday also come amid a series of seemingly positive developments in recent days, with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman telling Fox News on Wednesday that “every day we get closer” to his country normalizing ties with Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu devoting much of his UN address to touting the possible deal with Riyadh and its effects on the region.

In his speech on Friday, Netanyahu said Israel was on “the cusp” of a historic peace agreement with the Saudis, a deal he said would transform the Middle East, “encourage other Arab states to normalize their relations with Israel,” as well as “enhance the prospects of peace with the Palestinians.”

He later told Fox News that he believed the window for a potential normalization deal was open for the next few months, but noted that there were “major issues” with a proposal that Riyadh be permitted to enrich uranium.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to use a red marker on a map of ‘The New Middle East,’ as he addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Riyadh sent a diplomatic representative to the General Assembly hall to listen in on Netanyahu’s entire speech, in what was perceived as another encouraging sign for formal ties.

A Saudi diplomat listens to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2023. (Prime Minister’s Office)

Israel also congratulated the kingdom on Saturday for marking Saudi National Day, which celebrates the establishment of the modern Saudi kingdom in 1932.

Bin Farhan, in his speech Saturday, also made mention of the conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, and Sudan, saying Riyadh would like to “see stability return to the region”, and noted the recent China-brokered agreement between the kingdom and Iran, which restored diplomatic ties and direct communication between the two countries following seven years of tensions.

The agreement, he said, is based “on mutual respect and respect for sovereignty, independent security, and non-interference, and both respecting the UN charter and the charter of the OIC [the Organization of Islamic Cooperation].”

Following his speech Saturday, Bin Farhan met with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on the sidelines of the assembly.

The meeting came days after Bin Salman, in his rare interview with Fox News this week, said Saudi Arabia will have to obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran does.

“If they get one we have to get one — for security reasons, for balance of power in the Middle East. But we don’t want to see that,” he said.

Bin Salman said Saudi Arabia is “concerned” when any country acquires a nuclear weapon. However, he suggested that no one would use a nuclear weapon because this would mean starting a “war with the rest of the world.”

Iran sparked widespread concern last Saturday after removing a third of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s most experienced inspectors from accessing nuclear facilities in the country, a move that was blasted by the IAEA’s chief as unprecedented.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that Iran’s nuclear program was a “destabilizing element” and accused Tehran of not being “interested in actually being a responsible actor” after booting the UN inspectors.

Iran’s foreign ministry linked the move to what it said was an attempt by the United States and three European countries to misuse the body “for their own political purposes.” The ministry appeared to be referring to Britain, France and Germany, which said Thursday they would maintain sanctions on Iran related to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

An unidentified International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector disconnects the connections between the twin cascades for 20 percent uranium production at the nuclear research centre of Natanz, some 300 kilometers south of Tehran, Iran, on January 20, 2014. (KAZEM GHANE/IRNA/AFP)

Earlier this month, Britain, the US, France and Germany told the IAEA that Iran must clarify questions over its nuclear program, including concerns over the monitoring cameras, and the presence of uranium particles enriched to near weapons-grade level.

In 2015, major world powers reached a deal with Iran, under which Tehran would curb its nuclear program in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions. That started to unravel in 2018 when then-US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the pact and reimposed sanctions.

Tehran, in turn, stepped up its nuclear program. Efforts to revive the deal have been fruitless so far.

In his UN speech Friday, Netanyahu spent significant time on the Iranian nuclear threat and Tehran’s support for terrorism, and offered oblique criticism of the Biden administration and Western countries over the nuclear issue.

“Eight years ago, the Western powers promised that if Iran violated the nuclear deal, the sanctions would be snapped back. Well, Iran is violating the deal, but the sanctions have not been snapped back. To stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, this policy must change. Sanctions must be snapped back,” said Netanyahu, who has been a staunch opponent of the 2015 nuclear deal.

“And above all, Iran must face a credible nuclear threat,” he said. His office put out a statement shortly after saying he misread the line and meant to say a “credible military threat.”

Netanyahu was largely vague in a CNN interview Friday when asked about support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program. US backing of such a program is a key demand by Riyadh for the agreement, though security officials in both Israel and the US have expressed concern over the prospect of enrichment on Saudi soil.

Though a civilian program could be run without uranium enrichment on Saudi soil, the kingdom is reported to be demanding the enrichment take place locally.

In the CNN interview, Netanyahu said there could be “major issues” if Riyadh were to enrich uranium and that his government “would not do anything that would in any way jeopardize Israel’s security.”

“I will not jeopardize Israel’s interests and national security, but I will also not jeopardize success by speaking about it publicly,” Netanyahu added.

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