ExclusiveArab states willing to help secure Gaza after war if PA asks

Riyadh to host ministerial confab to advance united Arab stance for postwar Gaza

5 participating countries aim to raise pressure for ceasefire by leveraging their willingness to assist in Gaza revival and integrate Israel into region if Palestinian state advanced

Jacob Magid

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

Foreign Ministers from five Arab and Islamic countries From left, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, Palestine Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi arrive to the Diaoyutai state guesthouse to meet with their Chinese Counterpart Wang Yi, in Beijing, November 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
Foreign Ministers from five Arab and Islamic countries From left, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, Palestine Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi arrive to the Diaoyutai state guesthouse to meet with their Chinese Counterpart Wang Yi, in Beijing, November 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Saudi Arabia is hosting a summit of foreign ministers from five countries in the region on Thursday in order to advance a united Arab stance regarding the war in Gaza as well as political initiatives for when the fighting ends, two senior Arab diplomats revealed to The Times of Israel.

The Arab ministers are slated to discuss efforts to expand pressure for a ceasefire in Gaza, leveraging their willingness to take part in the Strip’s rehabilitation after the war in addition to further integrating Israel into the region, on the condition that Jerusalem agrees to take steps creating an irreversible pathway to an eventual Palestinian state, the diplomas said.

The gathering is the latest example of the united front that Israel’s Arab partners and potential allies are building, one that is increasingly at odds with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which expects the war to continue for many more months until “total victory” is secured. On the other hand, the grouping of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia is offering Israel a partnership that could be used to more effectively combat Iran, which Netanyahu has long sought.

The meeting — which has not previously been publicized — will also be attended by Hussein al-Sheikh, a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; as Riyadh continues to expand its cooperation with Ramallah, assuaging concerns that Saudi Arabia will abandon the Palestinian cause while working to boost its regional and global stature, the two diplomats said.

Joining Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and Sheikh will be the top diplomats from Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, according to the diplomats.

The summit follows several covert meetings Riyadh organized over the past month for top national security officials from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the PA.

Amid the Israel-Hamas war, Palestinians walk between the remains of destroyed buildings on the main road of Gaza City on January 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Hajjar)

Those meetings focused on security matters, such as whether the Arab states would be willing to provide troops in order to help secure Gaza after the war. One of the diplomats told The Times of Israel that participants expressed willingness to cooperate with such an endeavor for an interim period if it is publicly requested by the PA — as opposed to Israel — and if it is part of a broader, time-bound initiative aimed at eventually establishing a Palestinian state.

Thursday’s meeting will have less of a security focus, instead revolving more around issues such as significantly reforming the PA so that it is better suited to return to governing Gaza and coordinating the steps countries are willing to take to boost ties with Israel, namely Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in talks with the Biden administration about normalizing relations with Jerusalem.

Saudi Arabia notably chose to expand the participants beyond the countries that joined the earlier security-focused meetings, adding Qatar and the UAE.

While Qatar is often left out of such alignments given its support for Islamist governments, the decision to include Doha is a recognition of its influence over Hamas, which participating countries appreciate is essential for post-war planning, one of the senior Arab diplomats said, highlighting how Qatar hosts Hamas’s political leaders abroad.

The Arab countries participating in Thursday’s meeting don’t want Hamas to be included in the political leadership of Gaza after the war, but they do believe that the terror group will manage to survive in some form and that a level of its acquiescence will be needed in order to successfully advance the rehabilitation of Gaza, the diplomat explained.

The diplomat recognized that this forecast is utterly rejected by Netanyahu, who argued Wednesday that the only way that Israel will be able to boost ties with its Arab neighbors is by succeeding in its mission of completely defeating Hamas. The premier suggested that anything less would allow for the terror group’s revival and would demonstrate an exploitable level of Israeli weakness after Hamas massacred some 1,200 people in southern Israel on October 7 and took another 253 hostage.

IDF troops are seen operating in the Gaza Strip in this handout photo cleared for publication on February 6, 2024. (IDF)

Vowing to eradicate Hamas, Israel launched a massive military offensive in Gaza, which has killed more than 27,300 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. That figure cannot be independently verified and includes some 10,000 Hamas terrorists Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

But four months into the war, areas in northern Gaza which the IDF managed to clear of Hamas fighters early on in the war have begun to see their resurgence in recent days, highlighting the difficult task Israel faces in completely defeating the terror group, particularly without cooperation from its Arab allies in filling the vacuum with a more moderate power.

Regardless, much of the success of the Arab initiative hinges on the deal that Qatar, Egypt and the US are trying to mediate between Israel and Hamas that would see the remaining 136 hostages released in exchange for an extended pause.

The US is aiming to utilize the pause to negotiate a more permanent ceasefire and advance its regional initiatives. However, the hostage talks hit another snag on Tuesday after Hamas responded to the framework proposed by the mediators with conditions that both Israel and the US indicated were non-starters, though US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that space still remained for the sides to move forward.

The vision that the Arab countries are seeking to advance at Thursday’s meeting has been championed by the Biden administration for months, and Blinken again laid it out for Israelis during his visit to Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

“You can see the path forward for Israel and for the entire region with integration, with normalization, with security assurances [for Israel], with the pathway to a Palestinian state. That entirely changes the equation and the future for the better for Israelis, for Arabs, for Palestinians, and in so doing isolates groups like Hamas, isolates countries like Iran, that want a very different future,” Blinken said during a press conference after his meetings with Israeli leaders.

“It will be up to Israelis to decide what they want to do… All that we can do is to show what the possibilities are… The alternative right now looks like an endless cycle of violence and destruction and despair. We know where the better path lies, but I don’t minimize in any way the very difficult decisions that would need to be made by all concerned to travel down that path,” he added.

While Netanyahu made Saudi normalization one of his top agenda items upon returning to the premiership in December 2022, he has all but rejected the idea that it be conditioned on the creation of a pathway to a Palestinian state.

The prime minister has stressed that Israel must maintain security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River, which would leave whatever Palestinian state that could be created in that space as less than fully sovereign. Abbas and other PA officials have long ago accepted that their future state would be demilitarized, so there might not necessarily be a contradiction there.

However, the current makeup of Netanyahu’s coalition includes far-right elements who are even more adversarial toward the Palestinians than he is, pushing for mass displacement of Gaza’s residents and calling to dissolve the PA. Determined to keep his house in order, the premier has avoided even holding discussions regarding post-war strategy let alone agreeing to concessions that would see Palestinian sovereignty boosted.

As Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi, third from right, speaks to reporters, United Arab Emirates Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem Ebrahim Al Hashimy, left, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, second from left, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki, third from left, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, second from right, and Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Ahmed Aboul Gheit listen on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Like a Saudi normalization deal, the type of involvement in rebuilding Gaza that the Arab states are prepared to offer is something that Netanyahu has long desired but now seems poised to reject, given the conditions under which that assistance is being offered.

Thursday’s meeting comes as the US seeks to advance a similar initiative with its Middle Eastern partners aimed at coalescing the region around a united policy for managing Gaza after the Israel-Hamas war.

The US is advancing a “contact group” with Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey, which Washington hopes will allow for ideas to be raised and advanced in a single forum, a Biden administration official and a senior Arab diplomat told The Times of Israel last week.

Each country has been tasked with picking a representative on the contact group, with Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf being the US delegate, according to the administration official. The forum is expected to begin holding largely virtual working group meetings next month.

The Saudi normalization effort again made headlines on Wednesday after Riyadh issued a stern statement Tuesday rejecting what it claimed was US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby’s suggestion that the Gulf kingdom is prepared to forge ties with Israel before there is a ceasefire in Gaza and without progress toward Palestinian statehood.

Kirby was asked during a press briefing earlier in the day whether securing a hostage deal and a Saudi normalization agreement are part of the same US effort. Kirby responded that they’re two distinct tracks, and noted that the US has held “positive” talks with Riyadh on the matter both before and after October 7.

Reporters raise their hands to ask questions as Foreign Ministers, from left, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs Riyad al-Maliki, Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi, and Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry, attend a news conference about the Israel-Hamas war, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Saudi officials have publicly acknowledged their willingness to normalize relations with Israel, even after October 7, but they’ve stressed — as has Blinken — that no deal can be reached until there is a ceasefire in Gaza and that it must include the creation of an irreversible pathway toward a Palestinian state.

Either because Kirby’s separation of the hostage talks from the normalization negotiations could be understood to mean that Riyadh would be prepared to establish relations before there is a truce, or because the White House spokesman was overly optimistic in his characterization of the talks, Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry decided to call him out.

“The kingdom has communicated its firm position to the US administration that there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognized on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, and that the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip stops and all Israeli occupation forces withdraw from the Gaza Strip,” the statement added.

While Saudi officials in recent months have moved away from their long-held position — enshrined in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative — that a fully implemented two-state solution is a precondition to normalization with Israel, they hadn’t yet specified the kind of provisional steps they would accept in exchange for an agreement with Israel, sufficing with statements regarding improving Palestinian livelihood or creating a pathway toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, front left, attends a meeting with Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Secretary General of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Hussein al-Sheikh in Amman, Jordan, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool photo via AP)

Recognition of a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 lines appeared to be the most detailed stipulation that Riyadh has offered in recent months. While Netanyahu has all but rejected a two-state solution and a large percentage of Israelis would oppose a framework based on the pre-1967 lines, the Saudi statement notably refrained from specifically demanding that Israel be the one to recognize an independent Palestinian state, instead placing the onus on members of the UN Security Council.

The statement was issued just one day after Blinken met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, in a possible indication that the sit-down did not go well.

Still, by directing the demand for Palestinian state recognition at Security Council members, such as the US, rather than at Israel, Riyadh can be seen as presenting Washington with a way around the Netanyahu government’s rejection of a two-state solution.

It also came less than a week after UK Foreign Minister David Cameron said his government was considering recognizing an independent Palestinian state. Days later, the Axios news site reported that the US was weighing the same step after having long rejected it on the basis that the move should come after Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to a two-state solution.

Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

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