Two-state solution 'must return to the forefront'

Only way to solve conflict is independent Palestinian state, says top Saudi diplomat

Comment by Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan at UN event comes amid US-brokered efforts for Israeli-Saudi normalization, in which Riyadh is demanding concessions to Palestinians

Saudi Foreign Affairs minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan arrives at the Bureau International des Exposition (BIE) to discuss Riyadh's bid to host Expo 2030 World Expo in Issy-Les-Moulineaux, on June 20, 2023. (JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)
Saudi Foreign Affairs minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan arrives at the Bureau International des Exposition (BIE) to discuss Riyadh's bid to host Expo 2030 World Expo in Issy-Les-Moulineaux, on June 20, 2023. (JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

The Saudi foreign minister said Monday that the only way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is via an independent Palestinian state, amid talks on Israeli-Saudi normalization in which Riyadh has been seeking Israeli gestures toward Ramallah.

“There is no way to resolve the conflict other than by ensuring the establishment of an independent Palestinian state,” Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan told Saudi state TV network Al Ekhbariya.

“People have begun to lose hope in the two-state solution,” Farhan said, adding that the plan “must return to the forefront.”

Farhan’s remarks were made at the sidelines of a United Nations General Assembly event dubbed the “Peace Day Effort,” in which nearly 30 foreign ministers from countries in Europe and the Middle East met Monday to unveil a new initiative aimed at reviving the long-dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Driven by the European Union, Saudi Arabia, the Arab League, Egypt and Jordan, the sides agreed at the event to produce a “Peace Supporting Package” in the coming months that will maximize dividends for Israelis and Palestinians, once they reach a peace agreement.

Farhan said afterward that Riyadh chose to hold the event due to continued violence taking place on the ground and the fact that hopes for a two-state solution have been increasingly dimming. Accordingly, Monday’s initiative is meant to “restore hope” for the Palestinians that a just peace is possible, the Saudi foreign minister said, adding that the event had taken place in coordination with the Palestinian leadership.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, and EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell at an event on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly aimed at reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process on September 18, 2023. (Egypt Foreign Ministry/ Twitter)

Neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials were invited to Monday’s event, and the US sufficed with sending Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf, instead of Secretary of State Antony Blinken. However, the event organizer told The Times of Israel that the initiative’s backers were speaking with both parties to hear what they would like included in the package.

The developments came a day after Israel and the US denied a report by a Saudi-owned newspaper that Riyadh had told US President Joe Biden’s administration it was freezing the US-brokered efforts to normalize relations with Israel because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government was unwilling to make any concessions to the Palestinians.

The report in the Elaph newspaper, supposedly citing officials in Netanyahu’s office, singled out the insistence by far-right ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir that Israel not make any concessions to the Palestinians, adding that without progress with Ramallah, there could be no progress with Riyadh.

Last month, Netanyahu indicated that he was open to gestures to Palestinians if a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia depended on it, and hinted that he would not let coalition members block an agreement.

“Do I think it’s feasible to have that, and do I think that political questions will block it? I doubt it,” Netanyahu told Bloomberg News. “If there’s political will, there will be a political way to achieve normalization and a formal peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“I think there’s enough room to discuss possibilities,” he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the state funeral of late president Shimon Peres, held at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Netanyahu’s comments were in line with what Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said the day before in an interview with Elaph, which is often seen as a conduit for public messaging between Jerusalem and Riyadh.

“The Palestinian issue will not be an obstacle to peace,” Cohen said. “We also proved this in the Abraham Accords. We all have an interest in improving life in the areas of the Palestinian Authority.”

But Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners have ruled out any compromise with the Palestinians.

“We will not make any concessions to the Palestinians. It’s a fiction,” Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, told Army Radio last month.

Smotrich said that while Israel is interested in the US-brokered deal with Riyadh, “it has nothing to do with Judea and Samaria,” referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a rally in support of the government’s planned judicial overhaul outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on September 7, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

The current Israeli government led by Netanyahu has refused to entertain the notion of peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, instead moving to radically expand Israel’s footprint in the West Bank. The PA supports a two-state solution, but its leadership is marred by charges of corruption and PA President Mahmoud Abbas was roundly criticized earlier this month for a speech employing a range of antisemitic tropes. Additionally, the territory of the Gaza Strip is ruled by terror group Hamas, a bitter rival of the PA.

Both Netanyahu and Abbas will be at the UN this week.

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

An Arab official told The Times of Israel last week 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.

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