Officials: Saudis assured Palestinians they won’t be abandoned in normalization talks

PA delegation has several demands, but Riyadh is still studying the issue and will take months to decide which of them to put on the table in talks with the US on peace with Israel

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, meeting with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, April 19, 2023. (Wafa)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, meeting with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, April 19, 2023. (Wafa)

Saudi leaders assured a delegation visiting from Ramallah last week that Riyadh “will not abandon” the Palestinian cause as it engages in negotiations with the United States about a potential normalization agreement with Israel, a US and an Arab official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

The message was passed along in multiple meetings between the Palestinian Authority delegation and senior Saudi officials, including Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, the US and the Arab official said.

The PA delegation, led by Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee secretary-general Hussein al-Sheikh, PA General Intelligence chief Majed Faraj and PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s diplomatic adviser Majdi al-Khalidi, discussed a series of measures it would like to see advanced in the context of a normalization agreement between Israel and the PA.

Last month, three officials told The Times of Israel that the PA is seeking “irreversible” steps from Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US, such as US backing for recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, the US reopening its consulate in Jerusalem that historically served Palestinians, the scrapping of congressional legislation characterizing the PA as a terror organization, the Israeli transfer of West Bank territory to Palestinian control, and the razing of illegal outposts in the West Bank.

These and other measures were presented in last week’s meetings, during which Saudi officials briefed the Palestinian delegation on the status of the talks with the Biden administration, which to date have largely focused on the US-Saudi bilateral relationship, the US and the Arab official said.

There will be follow-up conversations between US, Israeli, Palestinian and Saudi officials on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly next week, but Riyadh will likely need several months to study the issue further before raising specific demands in its talks with the Biden administration, according to the two officials.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jeddah on June 7, 2023. (Amer Hilabi/Pool Photo via AP)

“The appointment of an ambassador helps, but they really are new to this issue,” the US official said.

Last month, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Jordan began serving as Riyadh’s first-ever nonresident ambassador to Palestine as well as its first-ever nonresident consul general to Jerusalem.

The Arab official explained that Riyadh has made clear to Ramallah that it is prepared to depart from its long-held public stance against normalizing ties with Israel absent an actualized two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the PA has come to terms with this development and accordingly is asking for measures that fall short of immediate statehood.

A spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that Saudi Arabia has conveyed to the United States that advancing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a critical component of a potential normalization deal that Washington is brokering between Riyadh and Jerusalem.

“It’s also clear from what we hear from the Saudis that if this [Israel normalization] process is to move forward, the Palestinian piece is going to be very important too,” Blinken told the Pod Saves the World podcast. “That’s clearly something that’s important to the Saudis in doing any kind of deal. It would be important to us too.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent months has insisted that the Palestinian issue is not as important to Saudi Arabia as commonly believed and that it has not been a significant component of the normalization talks that Riyadh has held with Washington.

National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi, a top Netanyahu aide, did say on Monday that Israel “supports a significant Palestinian component in the agreement with Saudi Arabia,” while clarifying that any Israeli concessions in that arena cannot come at the expense of security.

But he was quickly contradicted by far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who said Hanegbi does not speak for the majority of the government, which opposes concessions to the Palestinians.

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