Inside story

Palestinians seek ‘irreversible’ measures as part of Israel-Saudi deal, officials say

Ramallah proposing steps that can’t be rolled back by Israel, but Biden officials have pressed PA to moderate requests and direct them at Jerusalem, not Washington

Jacob Magid

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

Saudi Ambassador Nayef Al-Sudairi (L) presents his credentials to Palestinian Authority diplomatic adviser Majdi al-Khalidi at the Palestinian embassy in Jordan on August 12, 2023. (Wafa)
Saudi Ambassador Nayef Al-Sudairi (L) presents his credentials to Palestinian Authority diplomatic adviser Majdi al-Khalidi at the Palestinian embassy in Jordan on August 12, 2023. (Wafa)

WASHINGTON — The Palestinian Authority is seeking “irreversible” steps that will advance its bid for statehood in the context of negotiations for a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a US official, a Palestinian official and a senior Arab diplomat told The Times of Israel.

The steps proposed have included 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 PLO as a terror organization, the transfer of West Bank territory from Israeli to Palestinian control and the demolition of illegal outposts in the West Bank.

The three officials differentiated those kinds of measures from others proposed in the past that Ramallah views as reversible, such as a temporary Israeli settlement freeze, an Israeli return to peace negotiations with the PA, or Israel expanding the number of work permits it grants to Palestinians.

The irreversible steps are part of a list that the PA has passed along to both the US and Saudi Arabia, the officials said, adding that the measures will be discussed further during a visit by PA Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh to Riyadh next week.

Al-Sheikh discussed the measures with US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf during a Sunday meeting and received a largely chilly response, according to a Palestinian official.

Biden officials have pushed back on the Palestinian proposals relating to the US, pointing to congressional legislation that would require the US to end all of its funding to the UN if the Palestinians were granted full-member status.

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)

As for the consulate in Jerusalem — which served as the de facto mission to the Palestinians before former president Donald Trump closed it down in 2019 — US officials have reasoned that a degree of Israeli approval is required and note that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has refused to entertain the idea.

Scrapping the 1987 legislation deeming the Palestine Liberation Organization and its affiliates as terror organizations has also been a non-starter for the Biden administration given the political ramifications in an ever-divided Washington.

The US has encouraged the PA to moderate its requests and aim them at Israel instead. It has highlighted the idea of transferring Area C territory of the West Bank, which is under Israeli control, to Area B or Area A where the PA has more authority, as something that would be much more attainable, the Palestinian official said.

On the other hand, the current Israeli government has intensified demolitions of Palestinian construction in Area C in what it has framed as a “battle” over the territory, so ceding that same land to the PA would likely face massive pushback from Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said Monday that Israel “will not make any concessions to the Palestinians. It’s fiction.”

The Palestinian official who spoke to The Times of Israel expressed frustration over the US reaction to Ramallah’s proposals.

Religious Zionism party chief Betzalel Smotrich (center) and party members at the settlement of Efrat in the West Bank, October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

“They’re willing to discuss significant gestures for Saudi Arabia, but all they say to our proposals is, ‘That’s not possible.'”

Indeed, top Biden officials have been said to be weighing lofty Saudi demands in exchange for normalizing ties with Israel, such as a NATO-like mutual security treaty that would obligate the US to come to Riyadh’s defense if the latter is attacked; a US-backed civilian nuclear program in Saudi Arabia; and allowing the Gulf kingdom to purchase more advanced weaponry from Washington.

A separate Palestinian source familiar with the matter noted that the PA has been careful not to characterize its list as “demands” to avoid being seen as directly complicit in a potential normalization agreement.

The source explained that Ramallah has changed its approach to potential normalization agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors, no longer boycotting the process altogether or publicly condemning countries that establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

Instead, the PA is seeking to influence the process by separating its various bilateral ties with countries like Saudi Arabia from the normalization file, aiming to bolster both in the process.

Saudi Ambassador Nayef Al-Sudairi (L) presents his credentials to Palestinian Authority diplomatic adviser Majdi al-Khalidi at the Palestinian embassy in Jordan on August 12, 2023. (Wafa)

In this context, Riyadh is said to have offered to renew its aid to the Palestinian Authority, in a possible bid to coax Ramallah into backing normalization efforts with Israel.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told PA President Mahmoud Abbas in April that Riyadh was prepared to resume the aid package, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday. Aid has been frozen completely since 2016 amid graft allegations in the PA and a refusal to hold presidential elections since 2005.

The PA had also asked Saudi Arabia to establish a consulate in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian official said. Riyadh agreed to meet Ramallah halfway, appointing its ambassador to Jordan as a non-resident ambassador to Palestine and Jerusalem consul general earlier this month.

Notably, the move was not coordinated with the Biden administration, the Palestinian official said.

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