Move a nod to PA amid Israel normalization talks

Saudi Arabia appoints its first ever non-resident ambassador to Palestine

While envoy’s portfolio will also include being non-resident Jerusalem consul general, that title refers to engagement with the Palestinians, not Israel

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)

Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Jordan presented his credentials on Saturday to begin also serving as Riyadh’s first-ever non-resident ambassador to Palestine, as well as its first-ever non-resident consul general to Jerusalem.

The move amounts to an apparent effort by Saudi Arabia to intensify its involvement in the region, as Riyadh engages in negotiations with the Biden administration about potentially normalizing relations with Israel.

Nayef al-Sudairi — who is a cousin of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and seen as close to the royal palace — handed his credentials to PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s diplomatic adviser Majdi al-Khalidi during a meeting at the Palestinian embassy in Amman.

The appointment also represents a nod to the Palestinian Authority as well as a recognition of Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, since the credentials were presented to the PA and not Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

Because Sudairi will be a non-resident consul without a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem, approval is not required from Israel, which views the entire city as its undivided capital.

The dozen-plus countries that have diplomatic missions in East Jerusalem typically use them for engaging with the Palestinians. But unlike Riyadh, they also have formal relations with Israel that are managed by embassies based in Tel Aviv.

“This important step will contribute to strengthening the strong and solid brotherly relations that bind the two countries and the two brotherly peoples,” Khalidi said in a statement, expressing Ramallah’s appreciation for Riyadh’s support of the Palestinian cause.

The move by the Gulf kingdom appeared to call into question Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent suggestion that the Palestinian issue is not a very prominent part of negotiations over a potential between Israel and Saudi Arabia and that it is merely a box “you have to check… to say that you’re doing it.”

US officials have told The Times of Israel that Riyadh will not agree to normalize ties with Israel without securing significant gestures for the Palestinians that promote a two-state solution — a framework that the Netanyahu government strongly opposes.

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)

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that US and Saudi officials had agreed to broad terms for a potential Israel-Saudi deal, which they would aim to finalize in the next nine to 12 months. However, the White House quickly poured cold water on the notion, saying that no framework had been reached and that the reporting created a false impression that talks are further along than they actually are.

Still, Netanyahu will be dispatching confidant Ron Dermer, who serves as strategic affairs minister, to Washington next week for meetings with senior White House officials that are expected to include discussions about a Saudi normalization deal.

The WSJ report did cite Saudi officials who said MBS had told aides he is not ready to fully normalize ties with Israel and is not eager to reach an agreement with the current hardline government led by Netanyahu.

US officials have stressed that their approach to an Israel-Saudi deal is not all or nothing and that they also back interim steps that bring the sides closer to full normalization, but the stance attributed to the crown prince appeared to be the first time a Saudi official was suggesting that such intermediate moves might be as far as Riyadh is willing to go, and that it’s not ready for an accord akin to the one Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates in 2020.

US officials have privately acknowledged that opponents of Palestinian sovereignty — who make up a clear majority in Netanyahu’s government — will complicate efforts to secure a normalization deal, the WSJ report was also the first time discomfort with the idea of making any sort of deal with the current coalition was expressed by Riyadh as well.

At the same time, the Journal noted that bin Salman has given conflicting messages to different audiences and that US officials still believe the Saudi leader is serious about trying to reach an agreement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

On July 27, The New York Times also reported that US President Joe Biden had yet to decide whether he would ultimately sign off on the maneuver but had still instructed his aides to try and reach a deal.

Saudi Arabia is believed to be seeking a NATO-like mutual security treaty that would obligate the US to come to its defense if the latter is attacked; a civilian nuclear program monitored and backed by the US; and the ability to purchase more advanced weaponry from Washington such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antiballistic missile defense system, which could be used to combat Iran’s increasing missile arsenal.

In exchange, the US is looking for Riyadh to significantly roll back its economic and military ties with China and Russia and bolster the truce that ended the civil war in Yemen.

As for the specific steps Israel will have to take vis-a-vis the Palestinians, those have not yet been hashed out. A diplomat familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel Tuesday that Riyadh is not yet familiar enough with the issue in order to come up with specific demands.

The diplomat said the issue is not “burning” for MBS and that he has little appetite for the current leadership of the Palestinian Authority. However, the crown prince also recognizes that he cannot reach a deal with Israel that neglects the Palestinians, given the public sentiment in Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s view of itself as the guardian of Muslim holy sites, the diplomat said.

National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi told the Journal this week that Israel has yet to be presented with any terms while expressing confidence in the US ability to safeguard Israeli interests.

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)

Other current and former Israeli officials have expressed discomfort with the Saudi demand for a civilian nuclear program.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen penned an op-ed in the Journal on Tuesday in which he posited that if the United States were to agree to a defense pact with Riyadh as part of a potential normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, it would reassure Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations that they are protected from Iranian aggression, rendering their nuclear ambitions “unnecessary.”

Regardless, a US defense pact with Saudi Arabia will likely have a difficult time making its way through Congress, given discomfort over Riyadh’s human rights record, particularly among progressives.

It is perhaps due to the many hurdles that stand before a deal that US officials have been willing to acknowledge in recent weeks that chances for success remain low.

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